The Hidden Keys
By Andre Alexis. (Coach House Books, 228 pages, $17.95.)
Readers go to Toronto to join charming protagonist Tancred Palmiere as he searches for a wealthy junkie's inheritance in "The Hidden Keys." Palmiere is a thief of some skill who has begun to question his career choice. By happenstance, he becomes friends with aging heroin user Willow Azarian, who is sure that four special mementos left to the family by her father hold clues to untapped millions. Palmiere must track the items down and discern their meaning while finding his moral compass along the way.
Andre Alexis is an award-winning author who was born in Trinidad and grew up in Toronto.
The book's jacket says he was inspired by a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," but I found "Keys" to be a more adult adventure. The author's playful premise, story arc and interplay of relationships illuminate the responsibilities of genuine friendship, making for an easy read and prompting an afternoon's reflection.
The Women in the Castle
By Jessica Shattuck. (William Morrow, 356 pages, $26.99).
A continuing theme of World War II is how Germans faced coming to terms with Nazi horrors, as soldiers or, eventually, as citizens. That's a theme of Jessica Shattuck's new novel, "The Women in the Castle." But it's also what Shattuck herself did in tackling this subject, based on her own history as the granddaughter of active members of the Nazi Party.
Her grandparents had led landjahr lagers, or camps for German youth that taught them agricultural skills and an appreciation for the outdoors. It all sounds so idealistic, even idyllic, which is part of the tragic legacy of Adolf Hitler's efforts to nurture a superior Anglo-Saxon race.
Fans of Kristin Hannah's "The Nightingale" will recognize the actions of resistance through the eyes and actions of women: Marianne, a steely matron who wears her vow to aid widows of executed resisters like a knight's chain mail; Benita, who tries to keep a low profile and wishes to move on from the war as soon as possible, and Ania, who carries with her a secret that she dare not confide, least of all to Marianne.
This compelling novel is less a story with a dramatic arc than a tableau of how war and its aftermath affect ordinary people. While each woman is a vivid character, Shattuck also enables us to lift these women out of fiction and see them as representative of so many survivors who peered into the future with guilt and relief — and bewilderment at their role in history.