This week: "72 Hour Hold," "The Closed Circle," "The Loss of Leon Meed" and "Desertion."
“72 Hour Hold”
by Bebe Moore Campbell
Knopf, 319 pp., $24.95
Bebe Moore Campbell’s latest effort, “72 Hour Hold,” is aptly named after the time frame during which someone can be involuntarily committed for mental illness, because they have been judged a danger to themselves or others.
It centers around one woman’s struggle with both her teenage daughter’s mental illness and a mental-health system that won’t take on patients long enough to see real gains in their condition.
Keri’s daughter Trina is gifted and smart, but diagnosed with sufficiently severe bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to require medication to keep her on an even keel. Smoking pot sends her into rages where she accuses Keri of being a demon and killing her real mother, which in turn prompts her to run away from home.
Adding to the family drama is Keri’s first husband, Clyde — a man who hides behind his checkbook rather than taking the emotional risk of facing his daughter’s illness — and an actor boyfriend, Orlando, whose gay son PJ decides to come out to Keri before telling his father the news.
Bebe Moore Campbell
The author of “72 Hour Hold” will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
Campbell’s descriptions of the desperate measures parents take to protect mentally ill children from self-destruction, the extent to which the experience can disintegrate and lift up families to stronger constellations, are what make this book stand out from the typical psychiatric voyeurism.
Campbell’s added lens of African-American culture, replete with its own constraints and expectations and stereotypes, adds stark details that make Keri’s decision to trust an unsanctioned program that “kidnaps” the mentally ill more believable and ultimately more chilling.
What Campbell also illumines — even as her characters are achingly familiar in their human foibles — are the absolute strangers that mentally ill people become. Love and cognition are at the mercy of brain chemistry and societal circumstances that may or may not allow the ill patient space and time to think and be sane.
The people who love them in the end can only improvise and do the best they can, carving out a space where they can take a breath.
Reviewed by Betsy Aoki
“The Closed Circle”
by Jonathan Coe
Knopf, 400 pp., $26
“The Closed Circle” is a sequel to Coe’s earlier novel, “The Rotters’ Club,” a résumé of which is helpfully appended for those who, writes the author, have “inexplicably” forgotten it.
Not that it is his habit to be so constantly helpful. In fact, as the nouns in the titles indicate, he tends to deal with exclusive groups — clubs and circles — to which the reader cannot expect easy admittance. One finds oneself in the company of some 25 characters, most of whom have known each other for years. Disorientation is the sad outcome.
The long italicized introduction, for instance, appears to consist of letters written by one sister to another and alluding to a wide range of their mutual acquaintance. Only in time does the reader discover that they are not letters at all but journal entries, and that the addressee has been missing for years. Miriam, the missing woman, is a constant presence in the story, even after the horrible truth of her fate is discovered.
In the end one concludes that the novel is not about a character or even a small group of characters, but the ensemble, the circle itself. It is about the age: the disaster of 9/11, the fiasco of the WMDs, and Tony Blair’s spineless acquiescence in the mess.
Coe might have had himself in mind in this passage: “[It] encapsulated so perfectly everything he wanted to say about Britain in 2002 — the obscene weightlessness of its cultural life, the grotesque triumph of sheen over substance … .”
This reviewer, finding himself generally at home with the author’s attitude, finally gave up trying to solve the various enigmas of his fiction, and even grateful for the occasional explosive revelation of unsuspected links. But why, to name only one of the formal enigmas, are the chapters numbered in reverse?
Because in a closed circle it doesn’t matter where you begin or end? Or is it that, having read all the way to the end of Chapter 1, you are expected to read backward, in hopes of getting all the connections right this time?
At the beginning of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” the reader also finds himself in a large gathering of strangers, all of whom belong to the closed circle of that book. But Tolstoy eventually settles on two or three characters whom one can know with uncanny depth and intimacy.
If you are the sort of reader who enjoys being always in the company of strangers, not one of whose nature will ever be fully disclosed, however interesting such disclosure might prove to be, this is the book for you.
Reviewed by Clarence Brown
“The Loss of Leon Meed”
by Josh Emmons
Scribner, 338 pp., $24
An intriguing branch of fiction presents a world normal in all respects save one, and that exception is strange beyond reckoning. In Josh Emmons’ new novel, “The Loss of Leon Meed,” a schoolteacher unable to accept the loss of his wife and daughter in a boating accident abruptly finds himself floating in the Pacific Ocean “in water so cold it felt like liquid electricity.”
He presumes he has died, but the ocean is merely the first of a series of places in and around Eureka, Calif., in which he briefly appears. He is seen standing in front of someone’s living-room window. Then clinging to the top of a truck. He puts in a brief appearance at a basket party, then appears in a shower in someone’s bathroom.
Time moves forward for him in fits and starts. Sometimes he loses hours going from one place to another; sometimes entire days. Ultimately, we learn that each place carries special significance for Leon.
Emmons tells the story first through the startled eyes of those who see him, then from Leon’s own point of view. Ten years later, Leon has sculpted life-size burl-wood statues of all but one of those to whom he appeared, and left the figures as his legacy.
He has determined that his disappearances weren’t caused by grief, but happened because of his refusal to accept his loss. “The truth is that for years I lived at so great a distance from reality that it lost control of me,” he says.
The story carries Emmons’ message that we are all connected; that our feelings and our behavior have ripple effects on each other. As one character sees it, “You create a void and people fall into it.”
Reviewed by Deloris Tarzan Ament
by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Pantheon, 262 pp., $23
Has this ever happened to you? You’re reading a novel or watching a movie, intelligently made, with fully rounded characters, and yet you’re thinking “I’m not sure I can last this one out.”
Reading “Desertion” by English writer Abdulrazak Gurnah was that kind of experience for me. I can’t fault his vision. “Desertion” is about what the practices of empire do to human relationships. I can’t fault his talent. Here is a writer at the top of his form, who commands a strong sense of narrative, a meticulous eye for family dynamics, and an understanding of the corrosive psychology of colonialism.
Yet, there it is, that aching feeling as you turn the pages, of moving across a beautiful desert.
“Desertion” tells two stories, both of ill-starred love affairs, that take place on the east African coast some 50 years apart. The first, which occurs in the last year of the 19th century, is between an Englishman named Martin Pearce and an Islamic woman named Rehana. Pearce is a bit of a cipher; Rehana is pretty interesting.
Gurnah takes his sweet time bringing them together, although it turns out, their story is really a prelude.
The second liaison blossoms in the 1950s, as the archipelago of Zanzibar is moving toward independence from Great Britain. The lovers are Amin, an intense young schoolteacher, and Jamila, a beautiful lady with a mysterious past.
Most of Gurnah’s male characters have a static, flat quality. They are like the secondary figures in a painting that have been placed in the foreground.
His women, especially the vibrant Jamila, command your attention, yet — and I’m sure this is Gurnah’s point — they can’t avoid the resigned anguish that spreads across the novel like a dark stain.
Reviewed by Richard Wallace