Review of Aislin Hunter’s ‘The Certainties’

‘The Certainties’ is a different read. There is a doomed, claustrophobic feel to the sections where the three travelers are stuck in Portbou Spain. The scene where they are interviewed in a restaurant reminded me of the kitchen scene early in ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where Christoph Waltz so well plays the terrifying SS officer Hans Landa. In ‘The Certainties’ the Spanish are not so cartoon character evil, but are just as smothering in their approach. They use food as a weapon to the starving travelers and have a sadistic enjoyment in the power they wield.
Hunter’s earlier book ‘The World Before Us’ is one of my favourites, so I came to this book with high hopes. As a reader, I expected to be challenged, but I did not expect to be left forlorn.
I believe one of the highest goals of a well-written novel is that a reader can experience the world of the characters without the downside risk. We will not be sent back to face the Nazis but we share the gut wrenching fear of that prospect with the three travelers. We don’t bear responsibility for leaving a girl to die in a field, but share the shame. Here Hunter is successful.
As a reader and a writer, I take an interest in themes. I love stories, and great characters, without them a novel cannot be great. But what the stories explore is my interest. Here we see that Hunter’s theme is to bear witness. To speak of the atrocities we have seen. But then? I was left feeling the need for something more. Not a happy ending, but a glimpse of some possibly better world. Here and now, as we teeter on the edge of a fascist state taking place in America, this book made me feel more bleak and resigned to that terrible possibility. The brutality. Are we resigned to it?
I enjoyed the short section exploring how a man like Herr Gabler might climb to a position of power in a fascist state, but found it a fiction as imagined by the narrator. What the true story is, we will never know. As we will never know whether Suzanne and Bernard go forward or back to France. I wanted to know. With Certainty.
Some times and places I had trouble with. Where exactly is this island Pia is on? And what was the narrators name?
But these are quibbles. I am going to rate this book 5 stars, but with a warning. It is not a light summer read.

February 21, 2021

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The Certainties by Aislin Hunter
ISBN 9780735276871

Book review of ‘On Becoming a Novelist’ by John Gardner

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
ISBN 0-06-014956-6

This book had me traveling a whole spectrum of feelings, from ecstatic recognition of a voice I had always wanted to hear to tedious boredom of the Publication and Faith chapters. There are four sections and the first two are great. I might come back to the second two if I ever suffer writer’s block, but I also might suggest just reading the first two.
If you want to be a novelist, read this book. Gardner talks about what a novelist must understand, and hearing him describe those attributes was an electrifying affirmation that I was on the right track. The positive message had me jumping out of the book constantly to actually write. That kind of motivation is hard to find and is to be celebrated.
Loving language, playing with words, and mental exercises of incorporating themes, metaphors and symbols are all important. But the brilliant language always serves character, setting and action.
Creating that ‘Vivid and continuous dream’ for the reader to immerse in must be the writer’s number one goal. And plot as defined by what the characters want and how they go about getting it must be forefront.
This is not a technical writing book but a more thoughtful discussion on what sort of temperament a writer must cultivate to be a good novelist. A splendid book to have beside you as you begin a re-write of that first draft.
Highly recommended.

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