Monday, April 24, 2017

My Last Lament

Title:  My Last Lament
Author:  James William Brown
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0399583408 / 978-0399583407

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Now let me see, how to I turn this thing on?"

Favorite Quote:  "For me the thought of my becoming an older version of myself was troubling. What would happen to the person I already was? Would it disappear inside the older one. I wanted to grow up, but I didn't want to let go of what I meant when I thought I or me."

How to describe my reaction to this book? It's tough. I like the story better than I do the book, if that makes sense.

The story is of World War II and its aftermath in Greece. It is the story of Aliki, a young girl who sees her father executed in front of her. It is a story of a young woman who survives through everything life hands her - death, desperation, poverty, hunger, loss of home, loss of love, everything. It is the story of a young woman who feels responsible for one young man, falls in love with another man, and spends her life torn between the two.

It is the story of two young men who both love the same girl. One is a boy with medical challenges in a time and place when mental health and other such medical issues are not and cannot be provided for. The other is a young man who is a refugee, a survivor, and an artist. Through his shadow puppets and his plays, he expresses himself. Between the three of them lies a story of love, jealousy misunderstandings, and all emotions that surround such a love triangle. The story of these three young people is set in the atrocities of war, with executions, bombings, camps, and the plight of refugees.

The story has characters you can feel for. It is a piece of World War II history not often told. It is an emotional, dramatic story. It has all the making of a great, engaging read.

Yet, here is my dilemma. This book fails to engage me. I want to know what happens, but, at the same time, I don't really want to read through the entire book to find out. I am not entirely sure what it is, but something keeps me from fully vesting into this story.

Perhaps, it is the structure. The story is told in the voice of the old woman Aliki looking back on her life. The setup is that Aliki is on of the last of the lamenters, giving voice to the grief and mourning of others. In this book, Aliki does not set out to be a lamenter; it comes to her and from her unbidden. The narration of this story is through Aliki telling her story on tape at the request of a researcher. The chapters of the book correspond to the sides of the cassettes as she records her story. At the end of a side of cassette, the book pulls back to Aliki's present and the impending death of an old friend. The back and forth ultimately makes sense but is somewhat jarring if you don't pay attention to the connection between past and present.

Perhaps, the disconnect in the story occurs because the telling of this tale seems to be mired in details that don't change. The basic story is one of episodes between these three individuals. The dynamics of this triangle don't really shift. They seem to repeat in various forms throughout all the different background situations. For a historical fiction book, this book is very narrowly focused on these three lives, the dying art of lamenting, and the dying art of shadow puppets. The political and war history is on the periphery; it provides context but not the main story. The book is much more about an undiagnosed, untreated mental issue and about Aliki's balance between self-preservation and responsibility.

My parting thought on this book is that in some ways, it reads like a memoir of Aliki's life, her last lament becoming a lament of her own life, if you will.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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