Book this Escape
Anytime you read, you can’t escape the world you’re living in or your own baggage that you bring to the smallest parts of the story.
But the best books will always allow you a little escape or distraction, something else to focus on. These three debut novels, things I chose to read before the pandemic, gave me that escape. I hope they do the same for you.
Nostalgia is one way of escape. In Gretchen Berg’s “The Operator,” we go back to a time before social media, to a time when switchboard operators had to make every telephone connection. In a small town where gossip is currency, the tidbits overheard by the operators can change a life.
When Vivian Dalton overhears something about her own family, it sends her on a journey of discovery fueled by pettiness against the owner of the gossip. There aren’t a lot of characters to root for here, but the depiction of small-town dynamics is spot on, including provincial newspapers, independent dress shops and the tiniest bit of class warfare.
Wooster, Ohio, where Berg’s family actually lived, will be recognizable to anyone who has lived somewhere similar. A subplot about two “lovers” who rob a bank eventually ties into the whole story, one that will manage to surprise.
Even more surprising is Alexis Schaitkin’s “Saint X,” a narrative built on shifting sands less sturdy than any tropical beach. Seven-year-old Claire, her older sister Alison and her parents take holiday on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint X.
On the night before their departure, Alison disappears and a few days later is found dead. The main suspects, two resort employees and Saint X natives, are cleared, and eventually, her death is ruled an accident.
The parents push their grief deep inside, while Claire, now an adult, lives with it more viscerally, even before a chance meeting with Clive, one of the suspects, on the streets of New York.
Chapters shift back and forth in time from the Saint X vacation to the present, and invoice between Claire, Alison, Clive and even peripheral characters.
A murder mystery on the surface, this book doesn’t shy away from deep issues of class, race, and, more importantly, how we are all a product of our circumstances. This emotionally powerful book will stick with you long after the vacation is over.
Similar issues of class, gender and religious divisions occur in Deepa Anappara’s “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.” This is also narrated by a child, 9-year old Jai, who fights with his sister and loves police reality shows in his Indian home city.
Jai and his friends, smart girl Pari and Muslim Faiz, live in a slum, and their families work for the “hi-fis” in the gated community nearby. But they’re still above the garbage-picker children who rummage through the town’s refuse, hoping to find anything of value.
When a friend goes missing, Jai, Pari and Faiz play detective, even as Faiz is convinced the disappearance is the result of angering djinns.
The use of a child narrator is powerful, as we see a multilayered, tragic situation through the eyes of a naïve, resilient boy. The prejudice toward the Muslim members of the community, the uncaring, on-the-take police and the fate of the children are tempered through Jai’s sweet voice and a little bit of magical realism.