Friday, August 23, 2013
Review: In the Land of the Living
hardcover, 320 pages
Reagan Arthur Books
a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
In the Land of the Living is a story of fathers, sons, and brothers. It is told in an episodic, impressionistic style that at first left me feeling somewhat unmoored, and strangely unattached to the characters. The novel is divided into three parts, and Part I, which tells of the origins of Isidore Auberon, has long, elaborate chapter titles, in the style of Don Quixote. Isidore is one of three brothers growing up with an abusive father and a dying mother. Ezer, the father, is so damaged by his experiences in the pogrom that he is not able to be much of a father; he's emotionally and physically cruel. When the novel opens, Isadore's mother, also an immigrant, is already dying of stomach cancer, and her death leaves the boys unsheltered from their father's abuse. They spend some time in foster care, and Isidore becomes his brothers' protector. Yet when Isidore grows up and goes away, we hear almost nothing about the brothers he left behind.
The impressionistic style of Austin Ratner's writing is The Land of the Living's greatest strength, but it also may leave some readers feeling bewildered or even emotionally unattached to the characters. But as I persevered I started to think that The Land of the Living was rather beautiful, and I ended up finding it emotionally compelling. Ratner builds the emotional worlds of his characters, but he leaves out some of the more mundane details with which novelists often tether their characters to life. In this book, one or two incidents are plumbed to their emotional depths, and that comes to stand for whole periods of their lives.
As I got to know Isidore, and fell into the rhythm of Ratner's Joycean prose, I got caught up in Isidore's journey from poverty and emotional abandonment to academic, professional, and romantic success. Ratner's depiction of Isidore's romance, and of the family Isidore creates with Laura, is lyrical and resonant; by this time I was fully immersed in the world of the book. There are heart wrenching moments in Part 2, but that is just the build-up to the shattering emotions of Part 3, as Isidor's two sons, Leo and Mack, try to find their way in the world. As Mack and Leo drive from California to Cleveland, their relationship swings from one extreme to another--two hurt boys seeking closeness and distance. It's fitting that the two brothers are traveling in a Saturn, as they both are in danger of being devoured by the ever-present shadow of their absent father.
Leo Auberon seems to be a stand-in for the author, and the novel as a whole reads as a coming-of-age story along the lines of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It's really a book about a boy whose loss is nearly unbearable; how Leo comes out of that unbearable loss is the heart of In the Land of the Living. For readers who need a novel filled with the minutae of daily life, this novel will not satisfy your craving for realism. But for those who like to be carried along in a rush of exquisite prose, In the Land of the Living is an erudite, emotionally resonant work of art.