The Infinite Now, by Mindy Tarquini

In Philadalphia of 1918, the Great War is winding down, but the flu epidemic is just getting started, ravaging the Italian quarter of the city that Fiora Vicente calls home.  Newly orphaned due to the new sickness which has swept in on the wings of war, the sheltered teen is brought to live with an older gentleman, a respected member of the community, for reasons that Fiora can’t fathom, but for which she is grateful, in her spoiled way, all the same.

One of the greatest successes of this novel is Tarquini’s creating an unlikeable and yet sympathetic young protagonist, whose horror at the world is visceral and real, and who yet lives in a sort of fantasy world, a bubble that could be pricked at any moment.  Like most sections of cities populated primarily by people of the same nationality–even the same small communities–the Italian quarter of Philadelphia is insular in its own way, with everyone knowing the business of everyone else.   But Fiora is the outsider, and it is her inability to become part of the wider community that Don Sebastiano oversees that leads to her drawing the bubble of time around herself and her small territory, afraid to let the outside world in lest more sickness arrive, more people die, or word of her brothers off fighting in Italy come through.

The Infinite Now is a poignant, and yet claustrophobic, story of emmigration, community, and bereavement; for every step forward that Fiora takes, life seems determined to push her backwards.  Tarquini does a good job of building palpable tension, symbolized by the brief, yet unchangeable glimpses into the future that Fiora gets through the fortuneteller’s curtain she inherits from her mother.  The warring feelings of isolation and smothering she feels, the ways in which she slips back and forth between forming meaningful relationships and being pushed away from people because of assumptions and prejudices, are both effective and well-constructed.

 

This is also a novel of a particular time, a window into a small portrait of European-American experience that can be hard to imagine, from this 100-year vantage, and The Infinite Now, apart from its pseudo-time travel elements, also live up to its name in terms of the ways it evokes an infinitely huge, and yet infinitely small world, where people who emigrate become irrevocably separated from their home communities through the vastness of oceans, and yet never seem to leave the tiny worlds they make for themselves in their new countries.

If there is any complaint to be made about the novel, it would be the ways in which it too neatly wraps up the story’s conclusion.  It takes an issue–non hetero sexual orientation, which was often a serious taboo in traditional and insular communities–and treats it, first of all, as no big deal, and then seems to forget it entirely in its attempts to bring the novel to a close as the story of an old woman looking back on her life long ago.  For those into period novels with a dash of fantasy, this novel will do nicely, but those for whom LGBT identity representation is important, this might be a small red flag.

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Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

Razorhurst, the place, is not friendly
to children.  In a fast-paced novel
that goes out with a bang, children grow up fast or don’t grow up at all.  Some readers may find themselves
frantically checking the genre-labeling on this one, as Larbalestier doesn’t
skip over the reality of violence—the many forms of it—that made Razorhurst
what it was in the interwar era of Sydney. 

Surry
Hills is more than a setting in this novel.  It sets the tone for everything that happens, and everything
happens quickly.  Kelpie, a street
urchin, and Dymphna Campbell meet almost by chance yet are drawn to each other
for a reason neither feels comfortable speaking about.  Dymphna is a prostitute, Gloriana
Nelson’s “best girl,” who has escaped a horrific past.  Kelpie doesn’t know who her parents
are, only that living on the street is better than going to an orphanage. 

Surry
Hills, apart from being a well-known part of Sydney ruled by crime
bosses—particularly Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson—is a wonderful metaphor
for the up-and-down nature of life in this era, when the rich lived in their
big houses, far away from the poor and the injured war veterans forced to
scratch a living where even the houses themselves are rotting apart and
subsiding into the earth. 
Razorhurst is both a place to lose yourself, and a place where
people—everything they know about themselves—can get lost and forgotten.  Larbalestier emphasizes this by giving
the reader tiny bits of history—flashbacks—that weave together with the story
just like the lives of Kelpie and Dymphna do, getting tighter and tighter until
the story’s end.  She allows the
reader to solve the mysteries of the novel at their own pace, without slowing
down the flow of the story.

Razorhurst pulls no
punches and readers should expect plenty of authentic dialog and realistic
situations that may not be palatable for younger teen readers.  Larbalestier is an author who doesn’t
pander to or patronize her young adult readers, providing two strong but
different main characters with which to identify, who provide different levels
of entry into the same story. 
Readers who enjoy historical novels with plenty of research will love
the way Razorhurst combines a strong
sense of place with period dialog, dress, and urban life.  Readers looking for something out of
the ordinary run of American settings will enjoy getting to know Sydney and the
novel’s overall Australian feel. 

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

           There are books that are affective
for what they say about life, the world, and our place in it.  And then there are books that are affective
for what they don’t say.  At 544 pages in
hardcover Life After Life is an
extremely wordy novel.  And it has a lot
to say about a great number of subjects.
It is the story of Ursula Todd and her many lives.  It is not a time travel novel, nor a parallel
worlds novel, but a meditation on what it would be like if, every time someone
died, they started over, back at the beginning, and did it all again.  If there was in fact life, after life.  The novel imagines what it would be like to
be Ursuala Todd who, through no fault of her own, must experience life after
life after life, with no respite.

           Atkinson is one of the most subtle
wits I have ever read.  Her subject and
setting—England and Europe during first World War I and then World War II—is
not particularly original although it must be said that her narrative of life
in a perpetually bombarded city, or of the feeling of waiting for the worst to
happen, is poignantly rendered.  Her wit,
though, comes through in how she allows characters to react to the world around
them, and how the world reacts to them.
Child Ursula grows in precocity every time she is born, to the point she
practically carries the weight of the world in her later childhoods.  Let us consider that the greatest tragedy
often imagined in society is that of a child experiencing evil and war, and let
us then imagine a child being continually born to experience the same war and
the same death.  As Ursula grows up having
a greater and greater foreboding of that death and of her death, one life after
the other, Life After Life becomes an
astounding work of literary finesse.

           Life
After Life
is inhabited primarily by women, who represent a range of feminine
identities.  Atkinson allows them each
their own nature, to have contradictory reactions to life and to each other, in
fact to be human without any special attention being given to it.  Atkinson’s understated approach to women in
her novel lend a startling poignancy to our view of how society treated those
women who strayed too far from feminine ideals, of how women were taught to
hate themselves, and how the lives of men were given precedence over those of
women.  There are many beautiful moments
in Life After Life, and many
heartbreaking ones.  Many people have no
doubt fantasized about what they would do if they had life to live over, but
that fantasy becomes a nightmare when you don’t have the luxury of choosing
when you live or die.  The most affective
moments were when the reader knows that if Ursula had a choice she would have
died, and yet life forces her to go on.
Death is only an escape when it lets you go.

           Readers interested in life during
the Great Wars will enjoy this novel for its realistic representations of
London and Berlin during the bombings.
Readers who can suspend disbelief and allow a novel to become an
experiment in narrative meant to reveal something about the nature of life,
rather than just being a straightforward story, will enjoy the speculative
aspects of Life After Life.  It is a novel driven by ideas, written with a
delicacy that allows its characters to shine.
Anyone in search of a “great, big book” will find much to love in this
novel.