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Book Of The Month

Tender tale of grief and healing

In her 15th novel, Louise Erdrich spins a masterly story of how two families struggle to get on with their lives after a man kills his neighbour's son by mistake

Landreaux Irons, out hunting a buck, shoots and kills his neighbour's son by mistake. He pays for that death by "giving" the bereaved family his youngest son.

In her 15th novel, American author Louise Erdrich spins a sprawling tale of justice and restitution as both families struggle to move on with their lives. But justice here is not served behind bars or through murderous retribution: It comes in the form of five-year-old LaRose.

Landreaux cannot keep the guilt at bay after the shooting and, wanting an answer, turns to his ancestors and their traditions. He and his wife Emmaline, both part of the Native American Ojibwe tribe, shut themselves up in a sweat lodge one night and arrive at a means of atonement: "Our son will be your son now... It's the old way."

And so LaRose is ripped apart from his own family and thrown to his neighbours: white man Peter Ravich, his wife Nola - Emmaline's half-sister, who has long abandoned her tribe - and their daughter Maggie.

With this exchange of one child for another, Erdrich manages to weave a tender story about healing, with the sweet-tempered LaRose at its heart. It is LaRose who helps his four parents claw their way out of despair and come to terms with grief and guilt.

He is, after all, the namesake of generations of female healers in his family. They are connected to the spiritual world and have driven diseases out of bodies. The first LaRose, for example, could summon a flying drum to cure illness.

In American author Louise Erdrich's (left) LaRose, a young boy fills the void of another who was killed in a gun accident.
LAROSE By Louise Erdrich

A despairing Landreaux is told by a friend: "Evil tried to catch them all. They fought demons, outwitted them, flew... LaRose can do these things too."

To Erdrich, a family drama cannot be written in isolation. Families are an accumulation of their past too, a build-up of memories, people and traditions.

So the novel follows not just the current LaRose and his families, but also the lives of the four LaRoses before.

Erdrich treads between past and present starting with the first LaRose, sold by her mother for booze and tobacco back in the 1830s. She later kills her buyer and spends her life dogged by his disembodied head.

Generations later, the boy LaRose is told: "We are chased into this life... We are chased by what we do to others and then in turn what they do to us."

The novel explores Native American culture in an America that has long tried to assimilate these tribes and wrest them away from their roots and beliefs.

It unfolds in Ojibwe territory in North Dakota - familiar grounds for Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe and who has set most of her books there - and the fictional white border town of Pluto.

The two families are microcosms of their homes. The Irons still hold tight to their Native beliefs, while the Ravichs, living on the fringe of the Ojibwe reservation, are familiar with the community's myths and customs, though they can be occasionally dismissive.

Erdrich, however, does not shy away from spectral or fantastical elements. She unites the mundane and contemporary with the mythical, proving ancient customs and beliefs can live on in the modern world.

She brings to life a scene where the teenage daughters of both families loll in bed painting their nails and, with the same casual vividness, writes about astral projection, as two other characters leave their bodies and brush past each other on their journey through space.


ELIGIBLE By Curtis Sittenfeld

And when the boy LaRose joins the Ravich household, he becomes not just a bridge between his two families, but also between two different worlds.

The troubled Maggie draws strength from an owl spirit. A bereft Nola, stumbling on LaRose playing with his toys and holding a one- sided conversation with her dead son, starts to accept that death might not be the end.

While white America has long tried to extinguish or ignore beliefs it cannot reconcile itself with, in the novel, the Ravich family finds unexpected comfort in a foreign tradition that would never stand in a court of law.

And with LaRose, a young boy who fills the void left by another's death with kindness, Erdrich has pulled off a refreshing take on atonement and punishment as she test the limits of both grief and compassion.

If you like this, read: Blasphemy: New And Selected Short Stories by Sherman Alexie (Grove Press, 2012, $44.67, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of short, powerful stories that offers a look into the darkness of contemporary Native American life - its loneliness and isolation, alcoholism and despair - while deftly weaving in touches of its traditions and folklore.

FICTION

LAROSE By Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins/ Paperback/ 384 pages/ $32.95/ Major bookstores/ 4 stars


FICTION

ELIGIBLE By Curtis Sittenfeld


SWEETBITTER By Stephanie Danler

Random House/Paperback/ 500 pages/$23.97/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a literary classic, after a good number of centuries have passed, must be in want of a modern retelling.

And so it comes to bear that Jane Austen's beloved British tome, Pride And Prejudice, gets yet another update, this time from American author Curtis Sittenfeld.

This one succeeds. Over 500 pages, Sittenfeld adheres to the spirit of the original written 200 years ago, while making the story her own as she explores class, wealth and marriage through an updated lens.

The Bennets live in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. The heroine Elizabeth is a magazine writer working in New York, but has to return home for her father's heart surgery. She discovers that the family is in debt; her mother has a shopping addiction and no interest in her husband or the house; and her three younger sisters not only live at home, but are also unemployed. (One sister has embarked on her third online degree course, while the other two have devoted their lives to CrossFit.)

As in the original, she dislikes - then eventually falls in love with - Fitzwilliam Darcy, this time a neurosurgeon who earns her ire after he insults her at a dinner party.

Sittenfeld channels her observations of modern societal pressures here and, by doing so, makes the concerns of P&P relevant to contemporary readers. Mrs Bennet continues to harass Jane and Liz to marry - only this time they are 40 and 38, not in their early 20s. And, instead of giving each other lingering looks at dances, Liz and Darcy engage in hate sex.

The humour here is louder than the original (a game of charades has two Bennet sisters having no qualms guess-yelling "exploding with diarrhoea" or "having your period" in a room full of acquaintances), but that, too, is a reflection of our times.

Maybe not much has changed in two centuries. The book title comes from the Bachelor-esque reality TV show that Bingley (suitor to the oldest Bennet girl, Jane) takes part in. Tacky? Perhaps, but is it any different from 19th-century balls with obvious marriage overtures?


STALKER By Lars Kepler

The book is occasionally bogged down by tedious space-fillers, such as the discovery of a spider infestation in the home. It also introduces, then glosses over, issues such as transgenderism and anorexia.

Others may miss the elegance of Darcy's love letters in the Austen classic. But when modern-day Darcy turns up at Liz's door and tells her, "I'm in love with you. It's probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex, but I feel as if I'm in love with you," one can't help but laugh.

We may have lost our ear for cadence, but not our thirst for navigating the frightening adventure that is love.

If you like this, read: American Wife, also by Curtis Sittenfeld (Transworld Publishers, 2009, $19.49, Books Kinokuniya). With her trademark wit, she explores the life of a woman married to a man with different political views and presidential ambitions. Largely believed to be based on former American first lady Laura Bush.

Rachel Au-Yong


FICTION

SWEETBITTER By Stephanie Danler

Knopf/Paperback/352 pages/$39.78/Books Kinokuniya/ 4 stars

Stephanie Danler's debut novel is a coming-of-age tale that reads like a cross between celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain's revelations about the "culinary underbelly" and writer-producer Lena Dunham's examinations of female sexuality in the HBO series Girls.

Tess, 22, secures a waitress job at the first New York restaurant that she walks into. The book is infused with an old-world glamour and populated by a cast of loyal employees, all complicit in their secret knowledge of the eatery's inner workings.

The institution is never named, but it bears a strong resemblance to the prestigious Union Square Cafe, where Danler worked at.


THE WOLF ROAD By Beth Lewis

Little is revealed about Tess' past, but her desperation to find a place for herself amid the imperious order of the restaurant is clear. Danler draws readers into the minutiae of Tess' initiation, from the crushing humiliation of plate- breaking, butter-spilling episodes to the discovery of her palate with her first taste of oyster.

There are drunken nights out and dalliances with co-workers, but it is worldly senior server Simone and damaged, brooding bartender Jake that Tess finds herself increasingly drawn towards.

Danler's prose and her aptitude for characterisation make this book a compelling read, though it leans too heavily on dialogue and hasty introductions of characters in the opening sequences.

There are languorous scenes, such as Tess' contemplations on selfhood as she strolls through a city awash in possibilities. But these are tempered by the merciless crush of the restaurant's rhythms and the urgency of Tess' desires, sketched out with such a keen sense of self-awareness that the protagonist never crosses into the territory of being overbearingly indulgent.

For Tess is no privileged hipster - she is a member of the working class and "cared too much about the wrong things", unable to identify with the apathetic youth of her generation who "wanted dance music with a knife's edge, ironic lyrics that crossed accidentally into sincere".

Danler acutely captures the bittersweet experience of growing up: Once lived, the past can never be fully recovered, only drawn on with the ache of nostalgia or sharply called up by the senses - "a spot on your tongue where you remember".

If you like this, read: The Diary Of A Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner (North Atlantic Books, 2002, $32.38, Books Kinokuniya), a graphic novel that delves into the raw and complex world of a 15-year-old in 1970s San Francisco.

Yuen Sin


FICTION

STALKER By Lars Kepler

HarperCollinsPublishers/Paperback/523 pages/ $30.78/Books Kinokuniya/ 3.5 stars

The stalker watches his victims when they are home alone, turning snippets of their daily lives into short clips on YouTube.


AND THE WALLS COME CRUMBLING DOWN By Tania DeRozario

Then, joining the unsuspecting women on the other side of their doors, he hacks away at their necks and chests, turning each face into a bloody pulp.

This thrilling tale set in modern Stockholm will leave you wondering if you are safe at home tonight.

It is the fifth book in Lars Kepler's series about inspector Joona Linna, known for his unconventional ways of solving crimes. But those who are new to the novels will find it easy to keep up with developments.

Kepler, the pseudonym for Swedish literary couple Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril, spares no detail diving into characters' backstories. With plot twists at every corner, Kepler invites readers to understand each person's motivations and take a stab at solving the crimes alongside pregnant detective superintendent Margot Silverman, the police's new expert on serial killers and stalkers. She takes on the case, later joined by Linna, who previously faked his death and went into hiding to keep his family safe.

The novel begins when a video, filmed through a victim's bedroom window, finds its way to the police shortly before her death. They identify her killer as a stalker. While Silverman struggles to figure out his motive, police receive a second video and find another casualty.

Complications arise when they find her mangled body has been mopped up and tucked into bed by her traumatised husband who discovered her. To help him recount the night of the incident, police enlist hypnotist and psychiatrist Erik Maria Bark.

Kepler transitions effortlessly from the victims' final harrowing moments to the crime scene of the present - leaving readers hanging on to each grisly descriptor.

Fans of Nordic noir will enjoy the novel - competently plotted and very graphic - although it stops short of needlessly florid language.

Perhaps characteristic of the genre as well, Linna, who is introduced after an absence, is presented as a protagonist struggling to get back on his feet.


A LIFE DISCARDED: 148 DIARIES FOUND IN A SKIP By Alexander Masters

Kepler stops to remind readers that a stalker develops a relationship with his victim in his imagination, one that he convinces himself is real and reciprocated. This begs the question: Are the dead the only victims?

This fast-paced narrative may be bogged down by the weight of details at times, but the final reveal is a satisfying one. At the end of it, you will realise that perhaps the answer has been watching you all along from the outside.

If you like this, read: Missing by Karin Alvtegen (Canongate Books, 2011, $18.93, Books Kinokuniya), about a homeless woman who becomes the prime suspect in the case of a man killed in a hotel room.

Seow Bei Yi


FICTION

THE WOLF ROAD By Beth Lewis

Borough Press (HarperCollins)/Hardcover/399 pages/ $41.37/Books Kinokuniya/ 3 stars

Seven-year-old orphan Elka never knew her parents, but found a surrogate father when a freak hurricane displaces her like Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz into the woods and the hands of the woodsman Trapper.

She spends a decade in his tutelage, learning how to trap, hunt, shoot and skin. Her world falls apart when she discovers that he is a serial murderer named Kreager Hallet and his face is on wanted posters all over town.

Elka sets off north armed only with her knife and wits to find her real parents in the mining town of Halveston, where they had gone "in search of their fortunes" years ago.

Kreager is hot on her heels, as well as Magistrate Lyon, a boot-strapping, tough-talking sheriff whose son is one of Kreager's victims and who assumes Elka is a fellow killer.

This debut novel by Beth Lewis is a slow-burning thriller light on thrills. Its strength is not in plotting or characterisation, but in the depiction of a brutal, unforgiving post-apocalyptic wilderness.

The story takes placemost likely somewhere in Canada, as Elka calls her region "BeeCee", or BC, British Columbia.

She makes oblique references to some sort of nuclear event which the book's denizens call the "Damn Stupid", which has left irradiated lakes and strange weather patterns like the storm that displaces her.

Lewis is at her best when she describes the vast expanse of land Elka hoofs across, which underscores both the beauty and brutality of the ravaged world.

"The trees were the same everywhere I looked," said Elka, "I realised... that I was in one of them False Forests.

One of them that they cut down and regrew in straight, soulless rows. Every tree the same size, ground flat as a calm lake, same sickly smell of pine, and nothing in the world to navigate by."

Lewis falters when it comes to characterisation, though.

Villains sneer, grunt or twirl their moustaches conspiratorially, while Elka's companion Penelope, whom she meets halfway through the book, is described as an "angel" and even a "skinny goddess".

Elka also alternates between naivety and surprising resource- fulness, which leaves the reader confused as whether to treat her as a heroine or a vessel for the plot points that happen to her.

The thrill of the hunt is somewhat diminished as there is never a sense of danger of Kreager catching up with Elka.

Lewis tells too much, instead of showing, by having Elka constantly fret about her trapper: "Kreager was coming up right behind me, snapping at my heels", which drives the point home in a rather ham-fisted manner.

The Wolf Road is a strange beast - part post-apocalypse, part pastoral novel and part Western, with the dissonant effect of being set in Canada. But it is a passable adventure tale that is unique enough to distinguish itself from the deluge of post-apocalyptic fiction today.

If you like this, read: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, (Pan Macmillan, 2015, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), which follows the exploits of a Shakespearean troupe in the wake of a superflu that kills 99 per cent of the world's population.

Lester Hio


FICTION

AND THE WALLS COME CRUMBLING DOWN By Tania De Rozario

Math Paper Press/Paperback/132 pages/$19/ Books Actually/ 3.5 stars

In this semi-memoir, home-grown writer Tania De Rozario lays it all bare with an unflinching look at love and loss.

De Rozario, who won the 2011 Golden Point Award for poetry, makes her first full foray into published prose with a question: What does home mean for one dislocated and disoriented in Singapore?

The "walls" in the title are ones that both protect and divide, as De Rozario simultaneously mourns the collapse of a relationship and calls for the dismantling of social barricades that marginalise outsiders.

The book opens with the discovery of termites in the dilapidated house which the narrator once shared with her lover. In an unsubtle extended metaphor, their relationship has fallen apart and now their house is following suit.

The exterminator gives her the options of paying $10,000 to deoxygenate her property, poisoning the soil in her garden and spot-dusting with arsenic that might well kill her in the process.

"Seeing that I did not have ten grand, that I quite liked my plants and that I did not regard the idea of death as particularly uninviting at the time," she says, "I opted for the arsenic."

The house appears to be one of those cracks in the concrete jungle through which nature is determined to worm its way back.

The lovers jostle with the teeming insect life for room. A snail permanently installs itself on the bathroom wall, centipedes emerge from the tiles with every shower and spiders as large as dinner plates invade the kitchen.

This crumbling house is the latest in a string of homes that the narrator has left.

The first of these was the five-room flat that her born-again Christian mother raised her in.

She delves into the tension of her teenage years, as her queer sexuality clashes against her mother's growing devotion to her church.

Things come to a head over the treatment of her sick grandmother by her mother's church friends, causing her to leave home for good.

After that, she drifts from house to house, trying to settle in a new home, but ending up with too many old keys weighing down her bag.

De Rozario is at her best when mining private pain. But she loses much of that skilful nuance when she takes on the bigger picture.

A chapter criticising public housing comes across at times as an overwrought jeremiad, as she relies too much on repetition and draws trite comparisons.

An analogy between Singapore's obsession with cleanliness and Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth's repeated washing of hands springs to mind.

There is a point to be made somewhere in all this - how rigidly urban space is controlled here and how easily the Singaporean obsession with property leaves unhoused the people who do not fit into the desired boxes.

But her "HDB-has-ruined-us" generalisations are simplistic, with sweeping statements such as "The day we were put into flats, we consented to being controlled".

The strands of personal and political sit together rather incongruously in this book, an odd note in an otherwise compelling litany of longing.

If you like this, read: A Certain Exposure by Jolene Tan (Epigram Books, 2014, $18.90, epigrambooks.sg), a local coming-of-age tale of twin brothers that circles the tragic death of one of them.

Olivia Ho


NON-FICTION

A LIFE DISCARDED: 148 DIARIES FOUND IN A SKIP By Alexander Masters

Fourth Estate/Hardback/336 pages/$19.43/ www.bookdepository.com/ 3 stars

One day, a friend calls British biographer Alexander Masters, telling him he found 148 diaries abandoned in a scrap heap. The friend passes them to him and he sets out to piece together the anonymous diarist's identity.

The result is A Life Discarded. The book carries excerpts of the original diary entries, interspersed with Masters' commentary as he pieces together who this mysterious "I" is.

The diaries start from 1952 and span half a century. They are not arranged in chronological order, but in a random sequence in which Masters chose to read them.

He has an abiding interest in the lives of people on the margins. His critically acclaimed debut Stuart: A Life Backwards chronicled the life of a career criminal with a troubled childhood who became an advocate for the homeless. The book was made into a TV drama starring Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

But A Life Discarded is nowhere as fulfilling as there is little character development.

Instead, readers have a housekeeper of indeterminate gender who meanders from one employer to another and harbours ambitions but does little to get there.

The ability to fill 148 diaries from cover to cover does not make one an interesting person. The entries were, after all, filled with minutiae, from daily annoyances to what was on the telly.

There is also the odd moment of delusional grandeur - "My diary is now a work of art - am not afraid of people reading it, though it is so intimate".

But the truth is, his life and its endless chronicles are just a dull slog.

Masters' idiosyncratic and unconventional method of uncovering the identity of the diarist is cute at first, but gets frustrating as the trail fizzles out in one false lead after another.

At first, the way he insists on not jumping through regular hoops is a breath of fresh air.

He consults a private eye, but does not take his advice to check the electoral register.

Masters writes: "My initial reason for contacting him was not because I wanted to know what techniques to use to track down my missing diarist, but the opposite. I wanted to know how to avoid the successful approaches."

One such "unsuccessful" detour is a meeting with a graphologist, someone who analyses hand- writing.

She says the diarist is a "shrinking violet" and "dejected and melancholic". She also tells him the writer was born on May 22, 1939.

This prompts Masters to exclaim: "You can tell all that from the handwriting?"

Her reply: "I can tell that from reading what (the diarist)'s written. Haven't you tried doing that yet?"

And on it goes, with more unhelpful interviews with historians and librarians - to the point where one wonders if Masters had simply feared closure to this project.

Still, despite its flaws, what is laudable about this unusual biography is how it celebrates a life filled with longing for a different, better future, although those hopes were not met.

In this way, it has a bittersweet poignancy, for haven't most of us been there?

If you like this, read: Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (Delta, 2007 reprint, $33.91, Books Kinokuniya), Masters' biography of Stuart Shorter, a beggar and former career criminal-turned- activist for the homeless, who died in 2002.

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Tender tale of grief and healing'. Print Edition | Subscribe