Every year I read many more books than I can find time to write about on Vertigo, and so I use the category Recently Read as a way of bringing attention to the occasional book that stands out but isn’t quite at the heart of what I tend to write about here. Two books have lingered in my imagination over the last couple of months – Elise Blackwell’s The Lower Quarter (Unbridled Books, 2015) and Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains (Tantor, 2014).
Reading The Lower Quarter is like closely examining an inset that magnifies a small neighborhood on a map of New Orleans. Obliquely a mystery that centers around a missing artwork and the murder of the last man who possessed it, the book explores the intersecting paths of four characters who, post-Katrina, are trying to rebuild their lives even as the lower French Quarter rebuilds itself. Blackwell only hints at some of the critical events that have shaped and propelled Johanna, Eli, Marion, and Clay on stage, leaving it to the reader to try to piece together the backstory of each character. The book spans a few months during which the quartet of characters warily venture into each others’ lives. The Lower Quarter has a 21st century noir sensibility, with gnarly things like online revenge, sadism, and sex trafficking scrolling across the background. Blackwell has a knack for always leaving the reader slightly off balance; every time that one loose end gets resolved, another strand starts to unravel.
Here’s Johanna, an immigrant who makes a living as an art restorer:
How the change had occurred she could not have articulated if pressed, but across time, mostly gradually and unconsciously but occasionally with moments of leap and clarity, she began to feel as if she was part of the city. This nourished an understanding that a history can be adopted, that the history of the city could be her history and that she could become part of its history, regardless of where she’d been born or how recently she’d arrived. After all, that was what New Orleans had always been: a receiver of outsiders and immigrants, a blender, a granter of new identities, a place where you could disappear and then resurface under new terms…
This way of thinking had something to do with her work, too. She understood that her vocation made her, by choice, a person who believed that at least some damage can be undone, that original states can be recovered or at least approximated, that life can go on as though some things never happened. She knew, too, that you could also simply paint over a canvas, change the picture for good, so that without an x-ray machine it looked like the former story had never even existed.
Fog Island Mountains is a lush book, rich in language and vibrant in imagery. It centers around a married couple that live in a mountain village in Japan. As the book opens, Alec (originally from South Africa) is learning that he has terminal cancer, while his Japanese wife Kanae, already sensing the calamitous news and fearful of what lies ahead, is about to run away. An approaching typhoon mirrors the inner turbulence that consumes the couple. Much of the power of the novel comes from the omniscient narrator Azami, a mysterious elderly lady who is their neighbor. Azami, who is referred to an “an old fox,” is cast in the role of a kitsune, the fox which, in Japanese myth, has supernatural powers and can take the form of a human. Azami watches the typhoon as it sweeps over the village and, in her own discrete fashion, tells us how Alec and Kanae separately cope with his prognosis. Here, Azami watches as Kanae finally breaks down in tears:
Let us give her this moment, let us turn away, because the relief in letting herself cry will be ugly for us to look at, we can step outside the door so as not to hear her whimpering, we can stand here a moment feeling the force of the wind and the sound of the crashing up in the forest, and when she’s ready, it won’t be long, Kanae has always been the stronger one, we can step back inside…
I thoroughly enjoyed both of these weather-inflected novels. As Azami says (in Fog Island Mountains): “The clever thing with stories is that they are never really fixed, they are meant to change as often as the listener needs them to be something else entirely.”