Tag Archives: Dalkey Archive Press

Review: The Reconstruction by Rein Raud

This title was published in the original Estonian in 2011.   This English edition has been translated by Adam Cullen and is being published by Dalkey Archive in April 2017.

My Review:
Enn Padrick, the narrator of The Reconstruction begins writing in a journal in order to catalog his private investigation into his young, adult daughter’s bizarre death: “I didn’t know it when I began, but I do now: I don’t want to blame anyone or anything; or if I do, then only myself.  But I needed clarity.  I don’t want to find fault; I want to find out—if I only can.”  Enn’s daughter, Anni,  had been living in a quasi-religious commune with three other friends, all of whom died in a fire on their isolated, Estonian farmstead.  All four residents were found lying side by side in a second floor bedroom and each one of them had a small packed suitcase; a fifth suitcase was found in another room on the first floor, indicating that an additional resident had escaped this tragedy.  Enn has been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer and decides that he wants to spend his last several months trying to unpack the mystery of his daughter’s strange death.

The Reconstruction is divided into two parts, the first of which, entitled “Fish Tracks in Water” is taken up with Enn’s description of his early days at Tarfu State University where he studied Ecology and met his wife, Maire.  I found the descriptions of Enn’s life in Estonia during the Russian occupation particularly fascinating.  Rein Raud captures the general mood of what I would call a resentful acceptance of Soviet occupation through Enn’s memories of his earlier life: “I was a Pioneer and a member of the Komsomol (the Leninist Young Communits League) and hated the Soviet regime just like everyone else—not especially believing that it would even end, but also not of the opinion that it could be served with integrity.”  Soviet rule lingers in the background of Enn’s life and has a great effect on his relationships, especially his marriage and his interactions with his in-laws.

Enn’s father-in-law had risen to an important rank in the Soviet hierarchy through the agricultural sector and enjoyed all of the privileges and perks to which he was entitled by the system.  They lived in a nice apartment in a coveted area and Enn and Maire live with them for the first part of their married life and when their daughter is young.  Enn has no ambitions to become a politician or work for the Soviet system like his father-in-law, so there seems to be some resentment on Maire’s part that her husband can’t provide luxuries for their family.  When Anni, their only child, is a little older they do manage to get their own apartment through Maire’s father’s connections.  Even though they are living on their own, in a different city, Enn’s obligation to his in-laws is still evident: “Life was hard during those final years of the Soviet Union, of course—shelves were empty, and if we hadn’t had Maire’s parents’ access to the privileged grocery stores, our diet would definitely have been much more meager than it was; but even that wasn’t so important.”  The last part of this clause is particularly striking because, although he is still dependent on his in-laws and the old Soviet system, Enn is beginning to experience personal freedom as he lives apart from his in-laws and political freedom as the Soviet hold over Estonia is coming to its end.

As Anni gets older and the remnants of Soviet occupation fall away, opportunities are opened up to her and other Estonian youth that would have been unheard of a decade earlier.  Anni graduates high school with honors and is number one on the university acceptance list for French studies.  Anni moves to Paris and studies sociology and politics in that city for a few years.  Part of Enn’s journey takes him to Paris where he discovers more about the nature of her studies and the types of people she interacted with while in Paris.  Enn and Maire are proud of their daughter, but while reflecting back on those years Enn realizes that even at that point in her life he did not know his daughter very well at all:  “What did I really know about my daughter at that point—about her as a person?  I can honestly say: almost nothing.”  Enn’s realization that his adult daughter was a stranger to him is one of the saddest and most poignant revelations in the entire book; it is only well after her tragic death that he begins to understand anything about her experiences and her life.

The theme of religion and how we each deal with our own mortality pervades Rein’s narrative.  Enn is facing the end of his life due to a chronic illness as he investigates his daughter’s death.  He doesn’t adhere to any particular religious beliefs but he feels that being a good person, the best that he is capable of, is important for him during his final days.  Gaining a deeper understanding of his daughter feels like, for him, the good and right thing to do. The second part of the book, entitled “Birchback” is mostly taken up with Enn’s interviews of Anni’s friends as he tries to piece together her final year of life on the religious commune.  Birchback was originally the home of an artist named Joel and his wife Veronika.  They decide to open up their estate, which is a former farm and homestead,  as a type of retreat where people can come and do workshops and practice self-reflection and self-improvement.  There is no specific brand of religion that any of the residents at Birchback practice, but there are many discussions about the benefits and dangers of religious beliefs, especially when devotees take their spiritual practices to an extreme.

It is not unusual for young adults who are trying to figure out their place in this world to have some type of an existential or religious crisis.  The scattered and confused characters at Birchback who do strange things in the name of religion, like shaving their heads and taking a vow of silence, become a symbol in the book for the crisis of faith and mortality that happens for Estonian youth after the Soviet occupation.  Estonians were forbidden for so long to practice any type of Christianity that when they are faced with a freedom of religion,  many young people like Anni and her friends  experiment with different and unusual types of spirituality.  After Enn comes to a better understanding of the strange and tragic path his daughter’s life had taken, he reflects on the role that religion can play in the life of a person who is having a vulnerable moment:

As far as I understand it, experts on religious psychopathy often say that the tendency to turn to religion is simply a human trait that some have and others don’t.  Something like musicality or mathematics skills.  That’s complete bullshit.  No one is protected from it.  Someone simply appears in your life at the exact moment you’ve hit a dead end, presses the right buttons (comforting some, questioning some, or simply being near others,) and then even the most rational mind, the most cheerful spirit is capable of withdrawing from his or her former principles.

One final theme that should be mentioned which pervades The Reconstruction as well as Raud’s previous book The Brother is that of familial relationships.  Both of Raud’s novels are very different in plot and writing style, however, each story thoroughly explores the different and pivotal roles that family members play in our lives.  Raud delves into relationships between siblings, spouses, in-laws, children and parents with careful attention to detail and imagery.  Through Enn’s investigation into his daughter’s life, we are reminded that relationships are never easy and we can never become complacent with or take for granted a person that is truly important to us.

About the Author:
Rein Raud is the author of four books of poetry, six novels, and several collections of short fiction. He’s also a scholar in Japanese studies and has translated several works of Japanese into Estonian. One of his short pieces appeared in Best European Fiction 2015.

 

 

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Review: The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

This is my first contribution to https://746books.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/readireland2016/ which is an event being run by Cathy at 746 Books.  This book was originally published in 2011.  My copy is the newly released paperback edition from Dalkey Archive Press.

My Review:
Cold Eye of HeavenThe focus of this book is an old man named Farley who lives by himself in the suburbs of Dublin.  When the book opens he is laying on his bathroom floor and it is evident from the symptoms he describes that he has suffered a stroke.  He can’t move and is unable to call for help so it is terrifying for him that no one knows he has fallen.  How long will he lay there before someone comes to his rescue?  The rest of the book is a retelling of his life as each chapter reaches back another ten years in his story, leading us all the way back to his early childhood.

As the author reaches back into the decades to tell us Farley’s story the details of his life and how he ends up alone are slowly revealed.  Farley was married to a woman whom he absolutely adored.  He meets her in the 1960’s when he is a young man and is unsure of the path his life will take.  He wants to move to Australia, much to the dismay of his widowed mother, and work as a car salesman.  But Martina comes into Farley’s life just at the right time to give him direction and grounding.  Farley gets a job as a clerk in an office, a job which he is proud of and does for the next forty years of his life.

A large part of Farley’s story is taken up with the grief he feels after the tragic death of his wife.  From the details he gives us about the last hours of her life it seems that Martina suffered a painful bout of cancer.  She was his whole life and he is completely devastated when she is taken from him.  A few months after her death his Uncle Cal is so worried about him that he goes to Farley’s house and gets him out of bed and urges him to clean up his house and get back to work.  Farley slowly begins to work his way out of his cloud of grief but he calls the entire year after Martina’s death his dark period.  Farley never finds the kind of love he had with Martina ever again.  Farley has an affair with Kathleen, Martina’s sister, who also happens to be married to his boss.  They both realize that Farley is trying to use Kathleen as a poor substitute and the affair gradually fizzles out.   Kathleen is worried that if her family finds out about the affair then she will lose all respect and love from her children.

So the pieces are gradually filled in to show us how Farley ends up alone at the end of his life on his bathroom floor.  The theme of loneliness pervades this story as Farley tries to make connections with people in his life.  But as an old man who is set in his ways this is no easy task.  When his Polish immigrant neighbor offers to take a key to his house so she can check in on him he practically runs away from her.  As he walks the streets of Dublin in search of a cobbler to fix his shoe he laments the changing landscape of a city he used to know so well.  But it’s changing store fronts and differences make him feel even more lonely and isolated.

The details that are given by the author about Farley’s life caused me to become emotionally attached to this old man.  I knew from the beginning that the story would not have a happy ending for Farley.  But then again, he does live a rich, full life filled with love, friends, and hard work. The fact that I was sad when the book was over is a testament to the author’s talented, character-focused writing.

About The Author:
C D HickeyChristine Dwyer Hickey is a novelist and short-story writer. Her novel Tatty was short-listed for Irish Book of the Year in 2005 and was also long-listed for The Orange Prize. Her novels, The Dancer, The Gambler and The Gatemaker were re-issued in 2006 as The Dublin Trilogy three novels which span the story of a Dublin family from 1913 to 1956.

Twice winner of the Listowel Writers Week short story competition, she was also a prize winner in the Observer/Penguin short-story competition. Her latest novel, Last Train from Liguria, is set in 1930’s Fascist Italy and Dublin in the 1990’s and will be published in June 2009.

 

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Filed under Irish Literature, Literary Fiction