Ray Carney just wants to lead decent life as a black furniture salesman at the beginning of the 1960s in Harlem. His wife Elizabeth is expecting their second child and even if his in-laws are not happy with him, his life is quite ok. His cousin Freddie shows up from time to time with some bargains and Ray does not ask too many questions about the origins of the odd sofa or necklace. But when Freddie and a bunch of crooks plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – something like Harlem’s Waldorf – and as for his help to get rid of the loot, his life becomes a lot more complicated especially since Ray quickly understands that there is not much room for negotiation.
With “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” Colson Whitehead has catapulted himself at the top of the list of contemporary writers. Just as in his former works, “Harlem Shuffle” brilliantly captures the mood and the atmosphere of the time it is set in. It only takes a couple of pages to get a feeling of 125th street of the time and first and foremost, how people experienced the riots after the shooting of an unarmed black boy by a policeman. Thus, even though the plot is set sixty years in the past, he succeeds in connecting it to present day events and issues.
“The way he saw it, living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live- You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.”
Ray has decided for a decent life with his furniture store, he keeps to himself and his family and does not want to get involved too much in any criminal doings. He has grown up with broken glass on the playground, killings where just a side note of everyday life. Yet, Freddie is his cousin and blood ultimately is thicker than water. They have grown up like brothers and the bond cannot easily be cut even though this time, it means serious consequences.
The novel develops slowly but it is those seemingly unrelated marginalia that provide the depth of the story and create the atmosphere on which the story lives. A great novel vividly written and definitely worth reading, however, I am not as enthusiastic as I was after reading his former novels.
Ana has always been an extraordinarily pretty child, so when she becomes a teenager, her parents see this as a chance to escape their poor situation. At the age of fifteen, she is married to one of the Ruiz brothers, a family making a fortune in the US which allows them to control more and more land in the Dominican Republic. Ana has to follow her new husband to New York where she lives in a poor, rundown apartment and the promises of being able to go to school are soon forgotten. She has to serve Juan and his brothers and if she doesn’t obey or dares to speak up, he shows her with brutal force who has the say in their home. She becomes more and more desperate and finally develops a plan to flee, but she underestimates her new family.
Angie Cruz’s novel is set in the 1960s, but her protagonist’s fate could be as real in 2020. Young and naive girls fall prey to seducing men or are forced by their parents to leave their home country for a supposedly better life abroad where they, with the status as an illegal immigrant, hardly have a chance to escape their domestic situation which is often marked by poverty, oppression and being exposed to violence of all kinds by their domineering husbands. Dependence due to lack of language knowledge often combined with isolation makes them sooner or later give up all opposition and succumbing to the life they are forced to live.
It is easy to sympathise with Ana; at the beginning, she is a lively girl with dreams and vivid emotions even though she has also experienced her parents’ strict and at times brutal education. She is quite clever, nevertheless, the new life in New York overburdens her and she needs some time to accommodate and develop coping strategies. However, then, she becomes the independent thinker I had hoped for, but never egoistically does she only think about herself, she also reflects what any step could mean for her family at home whose situation with the political turmoil of 1965 worsens dramatically.
A wonderful novel about emancipation and a strong-willed young woman which allows a glance behind normally closed doors.
Just one evening with an old school friend and Maddie’s life is not what it was anymore. Her life with her husband Milton and their son Seth simply isn’t what she wants anymore and so she makes a courageous decision for the year 1966: she leaves. Now completely on her own, she wants to make real another dream: becoming a journalist and when she, by pure chance, comes across the body of a young girl and soon after again of a woman, she seizes the opportunity of her first contact with the press. It is especially the second case of the “Lady in the Lake” as she was named that turns in her mind. Nobody seems to be really care about who murdered Cleo Sherwood, just because Cleo was black. Maddie knows that there must be a story behind it and that this can be her chance to really become a reporter.
Laura Lippman’s novel is one of the most talked about books of 2019 and it only takes a couple of pages to understand why all this praise is more than justified. “Lady in the Lake” is the perfect combination of a crime novel and the story of a woman who follows her will and is brave enough to do this against all societal conventions. The setting is all but favourable for such an undertaking and Lippman’s lively portrait of Baltimore of the 1960s underlines with which severe consequences such an attitude came in these days.
The most outstanding aspect of the novel is surely the protagonist. Maddie Schwartz is the perfect Jewish housewife – until she isn’t anymore. She remembers the young woman she once was, surely a bit stubborn, but to put it positively: she knew what she wanted and she got it. So why should she be pleased with the second best life? She definitely is a bit naive, but her sympathetic authenticity is the key to the people and this makes her story convincing and plausible. Times were harsh, above all for black people and the novel gives a good impression of what this meant in everyday life. It is not an open accusation of segregation and the different kind of treatment of people of colour or even a political statement, but simply a fact and thus an integral part of what the characters experience.
I also liked the constant change of perspective and how Lippman integrated different points of view which also gives a good idea of someone like Maddie was perceived in her time. This also make the narrative lively and varied. I had some high expectations due to the masses of admiring reviews I had read, but nevertheless, the novel surpassed them easily.
1966, Jody, a Manchester designer, and her baby girl Anna come to Lisbon to enjoy themselves far away from her estranged husband. When she meets the Portuguese painter Zé, she immediately falls for him. Soon they are making plans even though Zé is supposed to join the military, but he is positive that his father can bail him out. Jody and Anna need to return to England, but this is only meant for leaving her husband finally and packing her belongings before she can ultimately settle in Lisbon. Zé is waiting for her, but she never embarks the ferry she is supposed to take. Zé is desperate, not only because of longing for Jody but also for wanting to escape from the approaching date of his marching order. He does not want to become a supporter of the Salazar system; thus he decides the risky way across the border to join Jody in England.
Julia Sutton’s novel is set against the complicate political situation in Portugal at the end of the 1960s. Even though the protagonist Zé seems to be a bit naive and not a leader of any underground movement to overthrow the oppressive system, you get an insight in how the rulers and especially the secret service worked at the time. Even though the love story is the main motor to drive the story, the political aspects dominate over large parts of the story.
It is especially the moment when Zé is captured by PIDE that the novel becomes most interesting and convincing. What he experiences in prison, the treatment and methods of making prisoners not only betray their friends and comrades but also how they are tricked and how little a human life is worth – repellent and disgusting. However, this is neither unusual nor especially brutal, it is just how these kind of systems work.
On the other hand, I found the societal or rather familial pressure which Jody experiences back in England almost as cruel as what Zé suffers in Portugal. How clearly her husband makes decisions and can enforce them – unbelievable for us today, but in the 1960s women were far from enjoying the rights they do today.
Even though the novel had many though-provoking aspects and was surely well researched, I found it was a bit long drawn-out at times and going round in circles. It lacked a bit of focus, was it meant to tell or love story or rather depict life in Portugal under the Salazar regime or show how limited female freedom was at that time? The author seems to be a bit undecided about it.