Reviews of the first 50 page of recent fiction.
The figures of the foreigner and the immigrant, long staples of fable and literature, have a special resonance in the era of refugees, Trumpism and the Brexit vote. Two new novels with local connections explore the theme.
The Bowl With Gold Seams (Apprentice House Press), by Ellen Prentiss Campbell, has a foot in two time periods. A long prologue revolves around a 1985 scandal at the posh boarding school where Hazel Shaw is headmistress. Then a chance encounter sends her memory — and the narrative — four decades into the past, when, as a young war widow, Hazel worked in Western Pennsylvania’s Bedford Springs Hotel when it served as the post-war detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Berlin, his staff and their families. (That detainment really happened.)
In both eras, Campbell — an author, critic and practicing psychotherapist who still summers near Bedford Springs — tackles xenophobia, privilege and the moral dilemmas of everyday life, all from the rare vantage point of Hazel’s roots as a small-town Quaker. Campbell is a lively writer with a keen eye for the details of both small-town life and boarding-school politics. And the 215-page novel’s titular symbol is especially rich: a half-forgotten work of kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery in such a way as to valorize the breakage, rather than hiding it. Good stuff.
Madhu Bazaz Wangu’s The Immigrant Wife also covers a lot of ground chronologically, and geographically ranges even further: The self-published novel opens in 1959, in India’s Valley of Kashmir, where the daughter of Brahmin family is intent on escaping a life built around the arranged marriage her parents want; rather, Shanti is set on attending art school. While this 513-page novel ultimately takes its protagonist to America, and to Pittsburgh in the 1980s, its early pages focus on Shanti’s struggle for self-determination.
The conflict between tradition and modernity is a familiar theme, and some of Wangu’s characters are familiar, too, from Shanti’s liberal older brother to their hidebound if loving father. But the Pittsburgh-based Wangu (herself an artist-turned-academic who taught at Pitt and elsewhere) renders these scenes in engaging cinematic detail, and it’s hard not to pull for her idealistic young protagonist. After all, Campbell’s Hazel Shaw learns about people from other cultures; Shanti is herself an outsider, even in her own home.