Garth Greenwell Hub




Saeed Jones’s ‘Prelude To Bruise’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Saeed Jones begins this electrifying book—one of the most exciting debut collections I’ve read in years—with a quotation from Kafka’s notebooks: “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms.”

Prelude to BruiseIt’s a powerful opening for these searing poems, in which pleasure and pain are often indistinguishable, and in which desire is almost always inextricable from violence. “I’ve got more hunger than my body can hold,” Jones writes in “Last Call,” and hunger often drives the speakers of these poems to danger. “Night presses the gunmetal O of its mouth / against my own,” he writes in the same poem; “I can’t help how I answer.”

How to tell apart joy and pain in a book where dancing is “a way / of mapping out hell with my feet,” as Jones writes in “In Nashville,” and looks like “Guernica on all fours” (“Katamine and Company”), where “Even a peacock feather comes to a point” (“Thallium”)?

In “Pretending to Drown,” even one of the book’s most tender scenes—two boys go skinny dipping together—holds out the promise of a threat. The speaker sinks under the water to see the other boy “as the lake saw you: cut in half / by the surface, taut legs kicking / the rest of you sky.” It’s a game, but also an invitation, and when he comes back up it’s accepted: “slick grin, / knowing glance; you pushed me / back under. // I pretended to drown, / then swallowed you whole.”

In Prelude to Bruise, Jones takes on at once the most intimate and the most public of themes: desire, family, race, art, America and its romance with violence. But the book’s real ambition is to force us to see that any division between public and private is arbitrary, if not fraudulent. It’s often said that the personal is political; few books have made me feel it as viscerally as this one.

These poems bear witness to the fact that to be black and gay in America—and especially in the American South—is to be confronted with violence from every side: on the street and in the home; from strangers and friends alike; most painfully, from within the self.

Many of the poems take place in cities—Birmingham, Jasper, New Orleans—that are sites of particular trauma in the history of race in America. In “Lower Ninth,” the speaker observes the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, still devastated long after Katrina. In “Jasper, 1998,” a haunting poem, Jones takes on the voice of James Byrd, who was dragged to death in Texas by three white supremacists. In the poem’s devastating final section, Jones uses the particularly American rhythm of the chain gang to make us feel Byrd’s torture: 

                        Chain gang, work song, back road,
                        my body.
                        Chain gang, work song, back road,
                        my body.

The book’s protagonist is known only as “Boy,” a name that condenses to a single word many of this collection’s difficult themes. It’s at once a term of tenderness (“he’s still your boy,” the poem “Insomniac” says to a worried mother) and desire (in internet chatrooms every second screen name is a variant of “boy”); it’s also a term of race hatred. In the collection’s title poem, it’s spoken in both desire and hatred at once, when during sex a man tells the speaker, “I like my black boys broke, or broken. / I like to break my black boys in.”

Saeed-Jones-author-photoIn “History, According to Boy,” the powerful prose narrative that closes the volume, we follow Boy through a childhood landscape scarred by violence, if not quite literally made of it: in a country at constant war, in a city where gay men are murdered behind bars, he lives in a “house made of guns.” Eyes are “narrow as knife wounds”; “a bare lightbulb shines…like a lynched moon.”

Boy is an alien both in and out of his home, increasingly as both he and those around him become more aware of what he desires. The violence around him intensifies, until in the final scene he finds himself nearly engulfed by it, on the point of becoming not just a victim but a perpetrator of terrible acts.

Like the great poets his lines recall—Whitman, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin, to name just a few of the voices that inform this book—Jones makes a music that feels adequate to rage and grief on both a personal and a national scale. Prelude to Bruise is more than a promising debut; it’s the rare book of poetry that urgently speaks—and will continue to speak, I suspect, for a long time—to the intractable griefs of our present moment.

Previous reviews...
Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef and Other Stories’
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef And Other Stories’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

The characters in the moving, innovative stories of Michael Carroll’s debut collection always find themselves just to the side of the world’s attention. In the beautiful “Referred Pain,” the lonely wife of a famous writer entertains graduate students desperate for his approval. In “Barracuda,” a young woman working at a PR firm meets the pop star who is their biggest client. In all of these stories, Carroll explores, with confidence and humanity, lives torn between awareness of all they have and bitter grasping for what they still want.

Little ReefIn the first of the book’s two sections (largely set in Florida), New York City represents the success that the characters long for. In “From the Desk of…Hunter B. Gwathmey,” the book’s first story, a young writer wins a high school writing contest and meets the local literati. For all that at first they strike him as glamorous, he soon realizes they aren’t living the kind of life he hopes for. “I hated Jacksonville, but then it occurred to me, in a sickening, sneak-preview-of-real-life type of revelation, that not everybody could live in New York, and that even some smart, talented people ended up having to make do in the provinces.”

It’s a realization that haunts this collection and its various talented, almost successful characters. “Not everyone was going to be successful,” Carroll writes at one point, “and it was cruel to ask them to try to be.”

Much of the pleasure of the book’s first half lies in Carroll’s depiction of the south. “Florida was a nutty business,” Carroll writes, and he excels at capturing the bizarre mix of awkward politeness and hysteria that characterizes so much of the southern manner. These stories offer one of the most convincing representations I’ve seen of southern speech—not by mimicking accent or dialect, but by tracing the shape of southern talk, with its suspensions and redirections, its sudden fits and starts.

The unpredictable drift of southern conversation may lie behind the unconventional shape of many of these stories. In an interview with the writer Andrew Holleran, Carroll speaks about his desire to break free of the traditional structure of the short story, in which rising action leads to climax, resolution, and epiphany or realization. Instead, he allows his stories to find their way in a looser, less predetermined way, allowing for sudden juxtapositions and unexpected turns and constant, vivifying surprise.

MichaelCarrollIt also allows for the emergence of what may be Carroll’s greatest strength, his ability to inhabit the deep consciousness of his characters. “What was writing except a direct line into someone’s head,” the wife in “Referred Pain” muses, and what makes Carroll’s characters so vivid is the access we’re given to their experience of their own lives.

And so, in “Referred Pain,” when the protagonist has an affair with one of her husband’s students, we experience it with an intimacy beyond mere explicitness: “He dropped his head next to hers and drove the side of his face into the pillow looking the other way. Her hand motions got wider and she felt his thighs relaxing and when he rose up she kissed his chest, too desperately, she thought. You didn’t do anything too desperate, so then she cooled off, tried to make a joke, yet keeping her hands near him.”

This experience of consciousness is nowhere more intense, and nowhere more moving, than in the five linked stories that make up the book’s second half. Each of these stories, which are told in both first and third person, centers on an aspiring writer who is in a long-term partnership, then marriage, with an older, much more successful novelist whose health is in decline.

In everything we learn about their lives, and also in the description Carroll offers of the older writer’s work, we’re invited to imagine that these characters are thinly disguised versions of Carroll and the legendary writer Edmund White, whom Carroll recently married after a relationship of nearly two decades. Like White, the fictional Perry has suffered a series of strokes, and his younger partner, who has spent years preparing manuscripts and keeping house, finds himself increasingly taking on the role of nurse.

“My job was to shop and cook and clean,” says Scott, the younger member of the couple in these stories, “and his was to create.” It’s easy to hear bitterness in the line, and these stories are extraordinarily candid in their depiction of a loving but not easy relationship. “There was no plan for who we were. Night was long for us. We’d go to bed separately. I read, which had become my coping strategy. I could live with him as long as we slept separately.” 

And yet what’s clearest in the stories of Scott and Perry, especially in the extraordinary “Admissions,” is their care for one another, and Scott’s terror at the prospect of an unbearable loss. It’s this terror—the awareness of death—that gives these stories their moral force, and that translates the grasping for fame or achievement into a profounder struggle. And it’s love that finally allows Carroll’s characters to escape—only for a time, but no less authentically for that—from their self-made prisons of jadedness and need.

Invoking the southern religious language that haunts these pages (“One day the Bible would have no effect on Scott at all. But not yet”), the protagonist of “Barracuda” casts a bit of hope in the way of her gorgeous, promising, limited friends: “From emotional midgets—too beautiful to live inside their awfully conflicted selves—sometimes came great, kind gestures, and perhaps they, too, would be saved. Despite their sweet bastard selves.”

Previous reviews...
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers At The Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

LoversClub hc cIn Brassaï’s famous photograph, Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932, two women sit together at a shabby café table in Paris. One wears a dress, its thin strap twisted on her bare shoulder; the other, her hair in a short, masculine cut, is in a suit and tie, the collar of her shirt in disarray. They lean into each other and stare, seemingly engrossed, at something outside the frame, the fingers of the suited woman resting on her companion’s elbow.

Francine Prose’s engrossing, virtuosic new novel uses a fictional version of Brassaï’s photograph to create a moving narrative of a group of friends and associates over two decades, as Paris devolves from the 1920s bohemian paradise of expatriate artists to the nightmare of rising fascism and Nazi occupation.

In Prose’s version, the suited woman of the photograph is Lou Villars, a desperately unhappy former athlete who will become, thanks to the people she meets over the course of the novel, a nightclub performer, a racecar driver, a Nazi spy, a torturer. More than anything, she will be a tool, forever shaping herself to what she thinks are others’ wishes, manipulated in ways she never fully sees.

Prose tells her story through a cast of revolving narrators, each of them connected somehow to that photograph: Gabor Tsenyi, the photographer who staged it; Lily de Rossignol, his patroness; Lionel Maine, an American novelist and his best friend; Suzanne Dunois, who will become Gabor’s wife; and Yvonne, who owns the club where they all meet.

That club—the Chameleon Club of the title, named after the lizards Yvonne keeps as pets—serves as a barometer for political tensions in France. When we first see it, it’s a place of remarkable tolerance, where men dress as women and women as men, where names are assumed and cast away, where sex and nationality are often uncertain; it’s a place that calls into question the whole idea of fixed identity. Lily marvels at the performers Yvonne hires: “The beauty and style of those dancers! Watching them, I’d ponder what it meant, really meant, to be a man or a woman. Is it our clothes, our sexual parts, our bodies and brains and souls?”

Lou finds herself among those performers, after fleeing an abusive coach and, more importantly, a world that won’t let her live as she wishes. She’s one of the “strays” that Yvonne takes in, lost men and women “who found their way to the club after hearing that it was a refuge where you would be taken in and not asked any questions.” For a time she seems happy, falling in love with a fellow performer, Arlette, the first of several women who will break her heart.

Soon, however, the songs that Lou and Arlette perform take on a darker cast, bringing the audience to laughter with jokes about impotent immigrants and bumbling Jews. Yvonne and her dancers are harassed by the police. Lou becomes a target of the proto-Fascist police chief Clovis Chanac, Arlette’s new beau, who is humiliated that his girlfriend once took Lou as her lover. The revenge Chanac takes—not least for the already famous, unerasable photograph Gabor took of Lou and the woman Chanac claims for his own—becomes part of the chain of indignities and resentments that will transform Lou from a Joan of Arc-worshipping nationalist to a traitor.

This ambitious novel paints a wide canvas, and doesn’t shy away from the familiar figures and events of the Second World War—there’s even a wonderful scene, at once chilling and ridiculous, with Hitler himself, who infects Lou with his crazed messianic fervor. But the real achievement of the book is that the intimate dramas of its characters’ lives remain our chief concern, the medium through which we understand the horrors of war.

Francine-proseThe book presents those dramas through a shifting set of documents in the characters’ voices—letters, excerpts from memoirs and novels, newspaper articles—that often allow us to see the same event through multiple narrators’ eyes. What might seem like a gimmick is instead consistently exciting, and offers the reader a fuller perspective on the complexity of events than any of the individual characters can have. At the same time, though, because there is no authoritative narrative voice—no third-person stand-in for the author—we’re left finally in a morally compelling state of uncertainty.

That uncertainty is most intense concerning the only character who doesn’t get to speak in her own voice. Lou’s story is told by a second-rate, present-day biographer, whose account is called radically into question by the novel’s end. This is a canny move on Prose’s part, since it allows her to put forth various theories about Lou’s descent into what can only be called evil—her early family life, her disappointments in love, her public humiliations—while also insisting that such a descent finally escapes explanation. 

Denying us direct access to Lou only makes her a more powerful presence in the narrative, while also ensuring that our primary attention and compassion remains with those who, bravely and foolishly, in ways insignificant or profound, stand against the tide of inhumanity by which she is swept up. Prose is among our most distinguished writers, and this may be her finest book. It’s rare to find a novel that is at once so entertaining, so smart, and so serious in its moral scope.

Previous reviews...
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost And Found In Johannesburg’: A Memoir: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Mark Gevisser’s extraordinary new book takes on several projects at once: It’s a memoir of his own and his family’s history; an exploration of the geography of Johannesburg, both human and natural; and an ambitious portrait of LGBT South Africans of all races both during and after the apartheid era. It's also the most exciting book of nonfiction I've read in a very long time. 

Gevisser-lost-and-foundIt begins with a childhood game. In the 1970s, whiling away the hours of a privileged childhood, Gevisser would choose a name at random from the Johannesburg Telephone Directory, and then use his parents’ street atlas to plot a route from his home to the stranger’s address. But when he happened upon an African name in the directory, Gevisser found that his atlas provided no route between their neighborhoods, no way to plot a course from his bucolic suburb to the townships “where the black people who worked for us would go to church or to visit family on their days off.”

And so Gevisser’s game became a kind of political education, giving rise to a lifelong fascination with borders—how they are constituted and how they are crossed. What’s most powerful in this very powerful book are the leaps it makes across its own boundaries, the connections Gevisser makes between his different projects of memoir and reportage. He finds “links between my own sense of alienation because of an illicit sexuality and the subordinate position of the majority of my compatriots,” and he tracks these connections through his personal history and the history and geography of his city.

As he pores over old maps, newspapers, and photographs, Gevisser realizes that “apartheid was embedded in the development of Johannesburg from the very start.” The very topography of the city—marked by hills formed by gold mining and sinkholes where the honeycombed terrain caves in—inscribes a social structure in which the subterranean many work for the obscene benefit of the few. In its carefully enforced boundaries, Johannesburg was “a world…defined by what it had been walled against, dammed against: I was safe in direct relation to the insecurity of those outside.”

Much of Gevisser’s work as a journalist has focused on collecting the stories of LGBT people in South Africa, and he finds that it was often in queer communities that the lines so carefully policed in the larger society were crossed. White gay men hosted parties in their homes where men of all colors could congregate past curfew; at a beach popular among gay men, “white and colored or Malay men cruised across the color bar.” Hillbrow, a gay area, became “Johannesburg’s first deracialized neighborhood in the 1980s.”

But Gevisser is careful not to romanticize this history: many gay whites fled Hillbrow once blacks moved in, and he makes clear how privilege, including protections for LGBT people, continues to be distributed with wild inequity. “You can rape me, rob me, what am I going to do when you attack me? Wave the Constitution in your face?” one black drag queen says to him in a moving passage about LGBT protections written into the South African constitution. “I’m just a nobody black queen.” But even in this case things are more complicated still: “She paused,” Gevisser goes on, “and then her face lost its mask of bravado and bitterness. ‘But you know what? Ever since I heard about that Constitution, I feel free inside.’”

Gevisser doesn’t minimize the risks LGBT people still face in South Africa, especially the many LGBT immigrants who flee their own countries in hope of greater freedom. Instead, they find both that they are denied the protections offered to LGBT citizens, and that in addition to homophobia they face growing hatred of immigrants.

Mark-GevisserIf the crossing of borders is often a liberating, even exhilarating prospect in these pages, it is also fraught with danger. Shortly before finishing this book, while he was visiting friends, Gevisser was the victim of a brutal, terrifying home invasion. This experience, which he alludes to in the book’s first pages, hovers over everything he recounts. He is typically complex as he narrates it, terrified and enraged but also unwilling to dehumanize his assailants. “These were well-brought-up boys, once, before they became monsters, emasculated by poverty, by unemployment, by the culture of entitlement, by the AIDS epidemic, by the degradation of traditional life and the failure of urbanism to provide any sane alternative.”

Gevisser’s account of the remarkably varied shapes LGBT lives take in South Africa finally focuses less on the hardships they face than on the remarkable ways they manage, despite those hardships, to find whatever joy they can. It’s impossible to do justice either to the scope of Gevisser’s book or to my admiration of it in a short review. It accomplishes what I take to be the work of serious literature: it leaves me with a greater sense of marvel and compassion for the lives of others, a richer and more complex understanding of the world.

Previous reviews...
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

On September 14, 1876, as San Francisco suffered under the twin plagues of record-breaking heat and an epidemic of smallpox, a young woman was shot dead through the window of a rented room at a railway station just outside of the city. Her name was Jenny Bonnet, well-known to the police for the crime of wearing men’s clothes, a predilection for which she was arrested numerous times. With her was a 24-year-old French burlesque performer and prostitute, Blanche Beunon.

Frog MusicEmma Donohue’s new novel, her first since her international bestseller, Room, takes these facts as the basis for an historical fiction that is less a mystery—Blanche is convinced through most of the book that she knows who killed her friend—than a portrait of these two characters and, even more successfully, of the time and city in which they live.

Jenny Bonnet is a wonderful creation, seemingly determined to live life on her own terms, with a recklessness that looks very much like freedom. “Jenny’s an odd kind of woman,” Blanche thinks, “part boy, part clown, part animal. An original, accountable to no one, bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases….” In her self-reliance and refusal to be bound, as well as in her flashes of compassion, she could almost be a fully grown, female Huckleberry Finn.

Blanche, Donohue’s protagonist and our guide through the world of the book, is somewhat less easy to love. She’s famous for her shows at the House of Mirrors, the bordello where she’s known as “The Lively Flea” for a particularly popular routine, and she’s wonderfully unapologetic for her appetite for sex: even if her partner is a paying client, “Men are tools Blanche uses for her satisfaction.” She lives with her lover and pimp, Arthur Deneve, a man whose apparent charm gives way, over the course of the book, to shocking brutality.

Blanche is also a mother, though not a particularly good one. She and Arthur have arranged for their child’s care at what they believe to be a farm outside the city, where the country air will be good for his health; instead, as Blanche discovers to her horror, he has been kept in a terrible, dank home for unwanted children. Blanche’s desire to find her child, and guilt over what she has done—she knows that she was relieved to be free of the burden of an infant, and that she was blithely unconcerned about his fate—are the primary motivations for her actions after Jenny’s death.

Killing off your most appealing character is a remarkable risk for a novelist. But Jenny doesn’t disappear from the book after her murder; instead, the book adopts an odd, occasionally cumbersome strategy, dividing into two interwoven strands. The first follows Blanche through the days immediately following the shooting; the second tells the story of her friendship with Jenny, beginning a month before the opening scene and moving toward what we know to be the friendship’s inevitable end.

The novel becomes enormously poignant as it nears its end, when we see the friendship between Blanche and Jenny blossoming in unexpected ways even as we know Jenny’s death is nearing. And Blanche becomes an ever-more appealing character as we see how she has been changed by that friendship, moving toward a future more open to possibility because of the ways in which Jenny challenged Blanche’s assumptions about her own life. Though Blanche claims to have no talent for friendship, she comes to realize that Jenny “is the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it.”

DonoghueFor all its human drama, the real protagonist of Frog Music is the city that enlivens every page. Donoghue’s San Francisco of the 1870s is a rich, vibrant, unpredictable place, equal parts Wild West and cosmopolitan city, full of casinos and saloons and immigrants of all kinds, many of them transient. “As if the City’s just a mouth, swallowing them whole,” Jenny observes, “and the rest of America’s the belly where they end up.” It’s also a place of music, and the book is full of songs, many of them from Blanche’s native France—one meaning of Donoghue’s title—but others distinctly American, whether the minstrel songs of Stephen Foster or Black spirituals.

Donoghue’s San Francisco is finally a frontier town, a place where boundaries are at once starkly drawn and constantly shifting: lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, all are fiercely asserted and yet repeatedly crossed. As we learn more about her past in the book’s final chapters, it’s clear that in Jenny Bonnet, Donoghue has created a thoroughly human embodiment of our impulse to cross all lines.

Previous reviews...
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

On the first page of Tatamkhulu Afrika’s intense and passionate novel, the narrator, Tom Smith, receives a package from a man he hasn’t seen in half a century. What it contains will send him back to the years he spent in Italian and German POW camps during the Second World War, camps that, for all their horror, Tom remembers as a “Bitter Eden.”

Bitter EdenThe book’s depiction of the day-to-day life in those camps is extraordinary. Captured in Northern Africa, Tom finds himself in a desperate world of starvation and ingenuity, of lice and cigarette economies and amateur entertainments. It’s “a place where anything unclaimed is everyone’s prey,” and where in their hunger men become nothing more than “meat wanting more meat so that it can go on being meat.” It is a brutal place, and yet it allows for intimacies and affections the broader world prohibits.

In this exclusively male world, men pair off with their “mates” to form ambiguous domestic relationships. The heterosexual Tom grudgingly allows himself to be claimed by Douglas, who disgusts him with his “almost womanliness,” and whose eagerness for Tom’s friendship reminds him of “a drowning clown or a tart desperate for trade.” That such relationships are often sexual is an open secret, and Tom’s cruelty to Douglas is a way of keeping at bay what he fears is Douglas’s desire for more intimacy than he can offer. 

This uneasy domestic arrangement is disrupted when Tom meets Danny, a British prisoner who makes Tom question what he thinks he knows about his own desires. “Sometimes I try to face up to the amorphous beast of how I feel,” Tom says, “lend it shape, substance, of which I can ask questions, have hope of a reply.” Increasingly anxious, he asks himself, “Am I one of them? Am I in love with a man?”  

The triangle between Tom, Danny, and Douglas will eventually turn tragic, but the book is most interested in the love between Tom and Danny, which will surprise both of them with its ferocity. That intensity is reflected in Afrika’s prose, which often takes on a hothouse lyricism that throbs with emotion.

In the book’s most beautiful moment, Danny wakes Tom to an eerie midnight scene: “a host of thousands of us are standing between the huts, motionlessly and silently as though bewitched, faces upturned under the full moon to the flank of the nearby hill.” Tom is confused until he hears the song of a nightingale, whose beauty has drawn the men from their beds: “‘So small a throat!’ I am thinking. ‘So small a throat!’ as the soaring gusts of sound, pitched a note’s breadth this side of sense, flood, copiously as the moon’s light, effortlessly as that which needs no struggling breath nor fiddling hand, out over hills, churches, shrines, our ragbag selves.”  

Afrika has a distinctive voice, a strange mixture of coarseness and composure, with a cadence informed by the Old Testament. At times, especially as he describes the deprivations of the camps, his sentences fall into a psalmic lilt: “and the skeletons we pretended we did not have begin to show, and our lips crack like the old mud’s heaving apart, and our tongues are the tumescences our loins no longer need.”

Tatamkhulu AfrikaWhile the book has met with great acclaim, some reviewers have complained that it suffers from melodrama, and it’s true that Afrika is drawn to extreme situations and the emotions they evoke, emotions he isn’t inclined to express with understatement. But I found myself increasingly entranced by this novel, which draws on Afrika’s own experiences as a POW. In its final sections, which recount first a forced march and then Tom’s initial days of freedom, including Danny’s remarkable and surprising courage in facing up to what he feels, I found myself harrowed and extraordinarily moved.

Bitter Eden appeared in the UK in 2002, just weeks before Afrika’s death. It has taken twelve years for the novel to reach the United States, and this very handsome hardcover edition is a labor of love for Stephen Morrison, the head of Picador, who wrote about the book’s long journey in Publishers Weekly. American readers are lucky to have the chance to read this beautiful book, a record of a man’s attempts to explore “the unpredictable thickets of my self,” where he finds that “a nothing that is everything is continuing to be said.” 

Previous reviews...
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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