• April 13, 2012

Ethics and morality are explored in three very different novels that span place and time, from 16th-century London to a southern plantation on the verge of the Civil War to contemporary Saudi Arabia.

Ethics and morality are explored in three very different novels that span place and time, from 16th-century London to a southern plantation on the verge of the Civil War to contemporary Saudi Arabia.


The Ruins of Us
by Keija Parssinen
Harper Perennial
352 pp.

In The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen brings to life the begrudgingly modernizing, still obscure world of Saudi Arabia, where she spent her girlhood as a third-generation expatriate. The story of the American born Rosalie and her Saudi husband, Abdullah Baylani, begins with Rosalie discovering her husband has taken a second wife and installed her in a house of her own just a few doors away. Even their Saudi friends are shocked and offended. Though legal in Islam, and in Saudi Arabia and many other Islamic countries, polygamy has come to be regarded as backward, selfish and cruel — at least among the modernized elite. Yet the otherwise rather Westernized Abdullah seems more concerned about the fuss Rosalie will raise than the hurt he has done her. The children suffer too. A particularly well portrayed teenage son, Faisal, who has donned the mantle of radical Islam and who resents his father’s drinking more than his infidelity, hatches a dangerous plot that goes awry, forcing him to choose between family and ideology, and forcing his family to resolve their issues. There are big themes at play here: Can a man love more than one woman at a time? A woman more than one man? What is the line between selfish irresponsibility and cultural normalcy? Between friendship and infidelity? Parssinen addresses these themes with dynamic, soul-searching characters and detailed descriptions of their emotional conundrums, very much in the style of Ann Tyler and Jodi Picoult. If you enjoy those two authors, you will love The Ruins of Us.
~Andrew Dayton

Accidents of Providence
by Stacia M. Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
257 pp.


Set in 16th-century London, Accidents of Providence illustrates that timeless moral battle between passion and duty. The plot revolves around Rachel Lockyer, an unwed glove maker’s apprentice accused of murdering her own newborn. What really happened the night Rachel gave birth alone in her room above the glove shop? Six years older than her widowed employer, Rachel believed romance was not to be hers and contented herself with caring for her younger brother Robert. When Robert insisted on joining the Levellers (a pseudo-revolutionary group whose ostensible goal is securing equality for all, but which in reality accomplishes little more than landing their members in jail), Rachel felt it was her duty to accompany the 19-year-old and keep him out of trouble. Although her dutiful chaperoning failed to protect Robert, Rachel met William Walwyn, an aging Leveller leader who transferred his waning passion for revolutionary activity to an ardent romantic affair with Rachel. The story is not only about Rachel’s personal conflicts (choosing to experience passion for the first time, even with a married father of 14 children), but also about the crises of conscience suffered by all those involved in Rachel’s story. Thomas Bartwain, the lead investigator on the case, serves as guide to the reader. Like us, he does not have all the pieces of the puzzle, only enough clues to sense Rachel is incapable of murdering her child. But the evidence is stacked against her; Rachel refuses to defend herself, and it seems impossible for her to be found innocent. Though the book tends toward the melodramatic, Brown presents a compelling main cast, with no character a villain or a saint. The novel is an exciting read with an unsuspected plot twist (based on a true event) at the conclusion.
~Claire Rivero

The Healing
by Jonathan Odell
Nan A. Talese
352 pp.

This novel, set on a plantation carved out of swamps in the Mississippi Delta, opens on the eve of the Civil War; the plantation’s slaves are its primary cast of characters. Pivotal roles are assumed by two black healers. Polly Shine, a healer and midwife, uses herbs, an understanding of human nature and her influence with the plantation owner to ease the slaves’ burdens. Polly mentors 13-year old Granada, who as an infant was snatched from her slave mother and given to the plantation owner’s wife as a stand-in for her own dead child. Polly and 64 of the plantation’s 300 slaves escape to Texas, where they establish a successful community. Granada, however, chooses to remain on the plantation and matures into a skilled midwife who treasures and shares the slaves’ stories with succeeding generations. As she points out, “If you want to destroy a people, destroy their story. If you want to empower a people, give them a narrative to share.” The two healers’ stories of three succeeding generations of blacks — their individual histories and characters, even their appearances (using clay masks) — help fulfill their “longing to belong, to be known and to be remembered.” These chronicles reflect a central theme of the novel: that only by knowing and sharing such stories is slavery’s legacy of enforced individual and family anonymity overcome. Odell is a native of Mississippi, and his lyrical and sympathetic description of the lives of plantation blacks just before and in the decades immediately after the Civil War provides depth and historical understanding of those turbulent times and places.
~Joyce Gubbins and Marcia Boyles

comments powered by Disqus