Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book 56: The Double Bind

I loved Bohjalian's novel Skeletons at the Feast but it took me quite a while to pick up another one of his.  I think I may have been worried that since I like Holocaust/WWII literature, I would of course love his novel on that subject, but that it wouldn't translate into good novels about other topics.  However, while I am still not sure about all of his novels appealing to me, my worry was definitely unfounded.
The novel is told mainly from Laurel's perspective, but the novel does have a third person omnipotent narrator.  It is also interlaced with excerpts from a doctor's report, and old photographs.  The story kicks off after Bobbie Crocker's death, an old man that is connected to the shelter where Laurel works.  Bobbie had always discussed his photography but not shared it with anyone.  However, the pictures are among his effects, and many of them are quite good - since Laurel is also quite interested in photography, her boss places her in charge of a project to turn them into an exhibit to raise money for the shelter.  As she examines the photos, she realizes that she and Bobbie had more in common than just a shared love of photography: they are from the same area.  Laurel had grown up in the shadow of Jay Gatsby's old mansion, and she begins to suspect that Bobbie may have been a Buchanan.  As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes more paranoid, believing that the Buchanans want to hide the connection between themselves and a homeless man with a mental disorder.
As a reader, it was easy to become caught up in the mystery and wonder what other clues Laurel might find.  Her friends and family all believe she needs to let the project go because they think she is too fragile given her past.  While the novel's actions start with Bobbie's death, the first chapter actually tells the reader all about Laurel's attack in the woods during which she narrowly avoided rape.  As a result of this attack, she became more withdrawn, and became involved in the shelter.  Her best friend and roommate is one of the few people from that period of her life she is still in contact with.  As she investigates Bobbie's past, she discovers there may be yet other links between them, making her face her past.
I was actually thrown a bit when I first read the references to Jay Gatsby, his mansion and West Egg.  However, I ended up quite liking the idea that these characters lived in the same fictional universe as characters of The Great Gatsby.  It really was quite interesting where Bohjalian went with that connection, and how he worked it in.  It really made me want to revisit The Great Gatsby - I've always loved that novel (I couldn't get into some of Fitzgerald's other work, but The Great Gatsby always just seemed perfect to me).  One other thing that is of possible interest: the photographs in the novel are actually all photographs that were found among the personal effects of an elderly man that had found a place to live through the help of a homeless shelter.  That part of the story was inspired by real events, and the photos were quite striking.
While the story may sound like a simple thriller or detective story, Bohjalian turns it into a novel about much more and something completely different.  His approach to the topic was rather creative, and I will definitely be reading more of him in the future (in fact, one of the reasons I haven't read much more of him by now is because I didn't want to read too many novels by the same author without blogging about them - I thought I might start confusing them too much in my head).  I'm particularly interested in his most recent one I saw at the book store, which appears to be a ghost story.

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