Chronicle in Stone is a searing coming-of-age novel, set during World War II in an Albanian hill town that has the misfortune of lying between Italy and Greece. Gjirokaster, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, is built of stone from the Southern Balkans and counts amongst its citizens Muslims, Christians, Gypsies, nuns, and prostitutes. Its highest peak is capped by a formidable fortress that has repelled invaders as far back as The Crusades; it is here that every segment of Gjirokaster society seeks refuge during the worst of the Allied bombings, peasants mingling with nose-holding aristocrats.
The protagonist, a young Muslim boy who reads Macbeth and loves words, imagines the picturesque homes of Gjirokaster to be living creatures, each with its own story. Even the cistern in his home’s basement speaks to him, and the planes from a nearby airfield become big-bellied friends that he imagines couldn’t possibly hurt him.
The boy at first casts an amused eye on the town’s traditions, such as its fear of witchcraft and the ancient women who haven’t ventured outside in decades. He grows more observant as he notes the violence inflicted on those who flaunt its sexual mores. One man, likely a hermaphrodite, is killed the morning after his wedding for the audacity of falling in love. During a bombing, a young girl kisses her secret boyfriend and is hauled home by her hair, where she disappears in what her ever-searching boyfriend fears is an honor killing. A woman, who reveals herself as a lesbian, is dismissed with the euphemism of “having grown a beard” and banned by her own father from the safety of air raid shelters.
Chronicle in Stone proves the cruelty not only of wartime, but of unexamined traditions and of a culture that attacks its own iconoclasts. The boy’s great wisdom lies in the growing realization that not all the traumas of wartime are inflicted by invading armies.
Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent, is a deeply engrossing psychological tale of deceit set in Ireland and France.
Oliver Ryan is endowed with dark good looks, but he has suffered a harrowing childhood. He was born out of wedlock to a father who works for the Church and regards himself as an icon of moral purity, his only slip-up a seduction by a woman whom he dismisses as “a whore.”
His mother abandons the newborn, leaving him on his father’s doorstep, who acts as if he would rather the child died than raise him. When his father marries, Oliver is sent to a nearby boarding school, where he spends years spying on his old family home from an upper window. Through his binoculars, he discovers that his father has begat another son, a blond-haired golden child who is showered with paternal affection. The boy even attends the same school as Oliver, who is never allowed to reveal their shared parentage.
Oliver constructs a careful façade to hide the damage his childhood has wrought, becoming a best-selling author of children’s books. After a tragic, failed romance, he rebounds by eloping with his illustrator, a woman described by his primary mistress as “way beneath him.” For a boy who grew up wearing tattered clothing and lacking spending money, he now enjoys literary acclaim, fawning acolytes, and a home in which he can hide his secrets.
Years later, suffering from writer’s block, he punches his wife into a coma.
Told from the perspectives of those whom he has hurt, the book attempts to decode Oliver and explain his violence. This book ultimately asks—and answers—the question, “How well can one really know a person?” In the case of Oliver Ryan, it appears one can only know a sliver of the fractured, shattered man.
Elmet is a literary suspense novel set in Yorkshire, England, about John, a fighter for pay and former enforcer of rents, struggling to protect his two children and to save their home, which he built himself on land owned by Mr. Price, his violent and rapacious old boss.
Invoking an ancient Celtic Kingdom that once existed in Yorkshire, Elmet is a story that could take place across the centuries. 15-year-old Cathy and 13-year-old Daniel come of age in the woods, each whittling their own bow and arrow from ash trees, hanging homemade Christmas lights from pine trees, and hunting for deer for their dinner in the copse behind their house. What little formal education they receive is provided by a school where their poverty makes them targets and, later, by Vivienne, a next-door neighbor who teaches Daniel—while Cathy runs free in the woods—the beauty of old sagas and imparts rudimentary technology skills using household appliance blueprints.
Cathy is a wild child at heart, unsuited to society’s norms and consumed with anger at the dangers women and girls face, whether from strangers, from the sons of Mr. Price, or from the ginger-haired travelers with whom they sometimes interact. Like her father, she is a formidable opponent and drives much of the story’s disturbing ending, when the conflict with Mr. Price and his cartel of fellow landowners reaches a horrifying crisis.
Elmet is a grim story, but its gorgeous prose and sharp delineation of character speak deeply to the love of a son for his Daddy and the bond that exists between siblings—and how hard one will search for the prodigal family member who has not yet found her way home. Elmet was a finalist for the Man Booker prize in 2017, an honor that it richly deserves.