Love & Virtue, by Diana Reid & The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
I read some great things over the holiday season (partly thanks to some enforced downtime) and two of my favourite fictions were both set in insular communities that were facing great cultural upheavals.
Love & Virtue is the debut novel of playwright Diana Reid, who had to shift gears when the pandemic cancelled her upcoming theatre season. As you do, she wrote a best-selling novel that takes an unflinching look at university drinking culture and the intense relationships that occur in the petri-dish of college life. Set at a prestigious Sydney university, we follow scholarship student Michaela as she navigates a new world of privilege and excess. She quickly falls into an intoxicatingly close friendship with her neighbour, Eve, and buzzes towards the light of her philosophy lecturer, Paul. Beneath the vapid pall of endless parties and hangovers lies a hotbed of misogyny and racism that is not easily shaken. This book asks what it takes to be a ‘good’ person and how one’s moral stance does not necessarily equal the same thing.
In 1953 a bill was taken to the United States Congress that sought to ’emancipate’ Native Americans living on reservations. In reality, this bill would have sounded a death knell for communities that were still reeling from the displacement, poverty and illness imparted by the arrival of white people to America. Erdrich’s grandfather was a Chippewa man of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, and she draws on his diaries to paint an informative and impassioned portrait of the grassroots movement against this Termination Bill.
Thomas Wazhashk is the night watchman at the new jewel bearing plant which provides higher-level employment to many local people, especially women. One such woman, Patrice ‘Pixie’ Paranteau, is determined to use her brains to work her way out of poverty and the yoke of her alcoholic father. She is also on the search for her sister, who left for the Cities and hasn’t been heard from since. As Thomas mounts his campaign against the Mormon Senator who has brought the Termination Bill to Congress, Patrice takes a road trip to Minneapolis to discover the fate of her sister. I loved this big-hearted, sprawling novel of a community in peril and am now excited to read Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence, which is set in a bookstore!
From Another World, by Evelina Santangelo
Reflecting on my best reads of 2021, I can’t go past From Another World by Evelina Santangelo. This contemporary gothic novel, translated from Italian, presents one of the most haunting opening pages I have ever read. It begins with the arrival of asylum seekers into Sicily into 2020, Santangelo’s vivid imagery establishing the latter as the first of many languishing European locations. The perspective shifts between many characters, but returns most frequently to Khalid, a young teenage refugee currently in Belgium, and Brussels local Karolina who buys him a red suitcase upon his request. This brief interaction forms just one point of a web of interactions, real and imagined, that spread along with the hysteria from school boards and the European police forces about fleeting appearances of undocumented children.
Meanwhile, Khalid mourns the recent loss of his brother, and faces a perilous journey alone as he retraces his steps to Italy for unknown reasons. Karolina is distraught as police investigate the disappearance of her son, who has likely joined a xenophobic extremist group. Full of twists, this novel remains clear in Santangelo’s self-professed goal to write a novel for our current times. This novel gets under your skin, and stays with you for a long time.
Notes on an Execution, by Danya Kukafka
Notes on an Execution is a deep insight into the mind of Ansel Packer, a young man who is scheduled to die in 12 hours. Within this novel, Danya Kukafka directly plunges the reader into a twisted multi-perspective story that illustrates both womanhood and the twists and turns of a serial killers orbit. Chilling, thought provoking and compassionate, Notes on an Execution makes readers think about the life and thought processes of people like Ansel in ways that are often overlooked. Ansel experienced severe trauma and abuse as a child, which was the main reason he grew up to be so troubled.
This book made me think about how no one does bad things for no reason; it taught me not to judge someone before knowing their background. After reading this book, I also became more aware of, and interested in, psychological behaviour and the way the human brain works. Notes on an Execution is a wonderful view into a fragmented story, and holds a very valuable lesson.