Tag Archives: Fiction

Philip Kerr takes up Prayer

Philip Kerr, Prayer. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.

I have written on Kerr in the past, chiefly focused on his Bernie Gunther character, though I’ve read a few of his other works as well.  Prayer is unlike any other text I’ve read of his writings, and I’m uncertain still as to whether this is a good thing or not.  As I worked my way through the novel, I commented to a friend that I found the book creepy and more than a little frightening at times.  In the end, I lean more on the idea that the story is a bit messy, the main character thoroughly unlikeable, and some of the resolutions left me wondering – is it over? Was it real?  What was real?

FBI agent Gil Martins is a Scottish immigrant who spent formative teenaged years in Boston, MA, worked as a lawyer, and quit in the post 9-11 malaise to become an agent for the Federal Bureau.  He’s on the backside of a failing marriage, drinks too much, and has lost his faith in God, if not also humanity.  When the story opens up, we learn that Martins, raised Catholic in divided Glasgow, has converted to evangelical Christian but is really more of a burgeoning, if not fully committed, atheist.  The personal religious struggles of Martins are somewhat interesting, but as other reviewers have noted, Kerr has not created the most sympathetic protagonist.  Martins, as written, simply cannot pull off the sardonic, self-aware witticisms that come so easily to Kerr’s Bernie Gunther.

Perhaps this is unfair – making comparisons between the creations of an author, but arguably it is also the fate of a writer who largely works in the serial of the Gunther cosmology (or at least as done so for roughly ten years).  Despite what I perceive as a misstep in character design, there are elements of the story that certainly worked to keep me intrigued.

Ultimately however, I ended up disappointed in the novel.  I am still unclear, five days or so removed from finishing, exactly how the string of murders that were under investigation by Martins are resolved, or perhaps they aren’t?  I wrote earlier that the book was both creepy and frightening.  I will stand by that judgement and it is in this particular element that I see success in Kerr’s writing.  He effectively creates an unsure, unsafe, and bizarre environment with a touch of the paranormal.  My personal problem was, I did not care what happened to Martins, I was not certain I cared about the main antagonists, and I found the seeming abandonment of some characters, like Martins’ FBI partner, odd.

Does Martins, and Kerr by proxy, ask some interesting questions about the nature of God and prayer in general?  Perhaps, but I still found that in spots, the story was “flabby.”  Prayer is worth investigating, but if you leave off halfway through the novena? I won’t judge.

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Filed under Fiction, Religion, Writing

Crossing over…

Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Students in my classrooms quickly learn that I enjoy working historical fiction and other non-traditional sources into my courses. There are any number of reasons for this strategy, but chief among them is to give students a different type of experience with history story-telling. Yes, some students get this type of story from watching history films, but my point is I would like students to get this type of narrative through reading.

Geraldine Brooks gives readers ample opportunity to explore story telling of the type that I believe can resonate with students of many ages. Not only is her narrative clear, but on several occasions, the visuals are so brilliantly crafted that you can “see” and sense the kind of colonial community she is attempting to bring to life. A fine example of this skill appears early in the text:

The labor was such that father trembled all over afterward….So it is, out here on this island, where we dwell with our faces to the sea and our backs to the wilderness. Like Adam’s family before the fall, we have all things to do. We must be fettler, baker, apothecary, grave digger. Whatever the task, we must do it, or else do without (5).

There are some who might not enjoy certain stylistic choices made by Brooks. Written in first person narrative, Caleb’s Crossing also makes an attempt at capturing the rhythms and alternative word choices of 1600s era New England. Not unlike watching a film in which English is the language, but the dialect or accents is quite foreign at first, the words and patterns become steadily more familiar. Still, this style seems a big stilted in some sections.

The last is but a minor complaint however. I found the book equally effective for creating a picture of the time period portrayed as M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and stronger than Caroline Cooney’s The Ransom of Mercy Carter, both of which I have used in the classroom. For younger students, some of Caleb’s Crossing
may explore themes that are difficult (eg, miscarriage, implied accusation of rape etc), yet the book’s value far outweighs any potential controversy.

Brooks provides the reader with a helpful afterward discussing the actual historical figures who inspired her writing, as well as commenting on a variety of sources and research. The inclusion of strong female and native characters are welcome as both Bethia and Caleb reflect more truly than most interpretations, the varieties of people extant in New England. We meet real historical figures along the way and indeed Caleb himself is based on a real person.

In addition to exploring the daily life of English settlers and native people, Caleb’s Crossing effectively reveals thoughts on the spiritual world of these “accidental” neighbors. Brooks lets readers better understand this particular past through descriptive narrative, creating characters we want to know more about, and by making language and words an important part of the story. Brooks clearly grasps that culture is embedded within language, and we can see that as Bethia and Caleb come to know each other and through the important use of Wampanoag words. It is a novel well worth reading, and should be considered a useful source to give students a readable and accurate portrayal of the time period.

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Filed under Fiction, Teaching and Learning History