Families: If they didn't exist, novelists would certainly have to invent them. All the grand themes of life -- love and hate, duty and selfhood, community and individuality, sacrifice and selfishness -- have played out on the familial stage throughout the ages, yet each family's iteration is uniquely its own. We see this clearly in two recent novels, "Solace" and "Jerusalem Maiden."
"Solace," the first novel by playwright Belinda McKeon, is a moving, contemporary portrayal of the age-old theme of generational conflict. Tom Casey is a small farmer in the Irish Midlands, a taciturn man whose family has worked the land for generations. His only son, Mark, is a graduate student in literature, sporadically writing a dissertation on Maria Edgeworth, a 19th-century novelist who lived on an estate not far from the Casey lands.
Mark, more self-reflective than his father, recognizes that to his parents, his doctoral work is "something alien, unfathomable ... a degree beyond a degree, an essay that would take years of their son's life, that would turn him, at the end of it all, into something just as alien and unfathomable; a university lecturer, a writer of books without storylines, papers without news."
It's a deft, clever description, and "Solace" abounds in them. When Mark meets and courts Joanne Lynch, an apprentice lawyer whose sketchy-dealing father has earned lifelong enmity with Mark's father, the pages sparkle with the self-conscious performances of a fledgling relationship, and all parents will remember those early days with a newborn when "everything shrinks to this pinprick," and "all awareness of a world outside ... came to seem like a rumor they both remembered hearing."
The birth of a granddaughter restructures everyone's lives; a tragic accident restructures them again. McKeon is as eloquent in her depictions of grief as anyone I've ever read, and her understanding of silences, words unsaid, and missed connections between fathers and sons is particularly moving. "Solace" is a powerful read, an absorbing, truthful novel.
"Jerusalem Maiden," by Talia Carner, is another family drama, although played on a more exotic stage and expressive of broader emotions. The story begins in Jerusalem in 1911, the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Esther Kaminsky is analytical, introspective and blessed with great artistic talent; unfortunately, she is also born into a family of Haredi, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect which considers the creation of graven images a grievous sin and particularly forbids depictions of the human figure. In this community, men are educated to study the Torah, but women are raised to do housework and are married off as soon as their menses begin -- an event Esther postpones as long as possible by eating secret herbs.
Esther finds a mentor in her French teacher, who recognizes her remarkable talent and encourages her, but rebellion against parents and tradition is one thing, rebellion against Hashem (God) quite another. When her mother dies, Esther interprets it as punishment for her sins, renouncing her talent, although she cannot bring herself to complete obedience; when her beloved father denounces her and her best friend commits suicide, Esther plots her escape.
The first half of the book provides a fascinating look at a little-known culture and time. Esther's struggles with faith and reason are compelling and sympathetically portrayed: How do we know what God wills? Where does authority reside? Why would God bestow great talent only to forbid its use? And -- the overarching question -- why doesn't her father/ why doesn't God love girls as much as boys?
The complexity and tension drop off as the narrative fast-forwards to 1924, and Esther, now a mother herself and married to a rich merchant, does make her escape to a highly romanticized Paris. On the one hand, of course readers want her to be happy, be free. But how does she shake off the restrictions she has internalized? Why does the internal conflict seem to evaporate? It all seems a bit too easy, as if a fairy godmother brought out her wand.
Perhaps the resolution is truthier than it seems; although fictional, Esther was based on Carner's grandmother. And my disappointment certainly didn't stop me from happily devouring the book in one sitting.
The bottom line: Tuck "Jerusalem Maiden" in your beach bag. Read "Solace" by the fireplace on a foggy day at the cabin.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.