Two American Novels

I am reading a lot of American fiction nowadays. The reason is the access I have to the collection at the Malaysian National Library via the TPM library at my workplace. Earlier whenever I thought about American fiction, i used to think of thrillers and suchlike. While Dan Browne and Michael Crichton are a good read, one would not really think about them as novelists. Because of the anglophilia of our newspapers and because of the colonial hangover, we think that British fiction, or that published in Britain is the best. I used to think that American novelists stopped being born after the death of Steinbeck and Hemingway. Perhaps this only showcases my ignorance, but that is the way it was.
Now thanks to the library, i have recently read two marvelous books. Both of them, in my opinion, are far better than many that have won the Booker prize. One of them has , in fact won the Pulitzer prize, but for some reason the Pulitzer prize is not reported in our press perhaps because an Indian origin author has yet to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
I am referring to Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill and Empire Falls by Richard Russo.
The first of these, a first novel by the author, follows the fortunes of Ursula Wong, a two year old daughter of parents of mixed Chinese and Finish origin who falls into a mine shaft while holidaying with her parents. This evokes intense media interest, not unlike what happened in India when a young lad called Prince fell into a well in a village near Kurukhshetra. Hill now takes us back to a China of 3000 years ago where one of Ursula’s forefathers is a Chinese alchemist. Later she also brings into the story several ancestors from both sides who lived lives happy and unfortunate, and the adventures that brought Ursula’s parents together in order to create her unique being. It is a marvelous novel, gripping, moving and well researched. It brings home to the reader that every person is a miracle, there are so many reasons why he should not have been born, but even so, the DNA survived, so to say, to produce one unique individual. The story ends with Ursula being brought out alive and many loose ends being tied up. All in all, a very satisfying novel.
The second is a story of blue collar small town America. The town of Empire Falls had depended on a textile mill for survival and prosperity and is now on bad days. The mill has closed and the town is slowly decaying. Several residents who were born here cling to it with an inexplicable fierceness; one of them is Milles Roby who has run a fast food joint for more than 20 years. This joint is owned by Francis Witling who is the widow of the original owner and is the landlord for most of the property in town. Her crippled daughter, Cindy has been in love with Miles, since she was a child, but this love is unrequited thought Miles is always kind to her. Miles’ marriage is breaking down and his wife marries another local man, flaunting her affair to his face. His daughter, Tick is going through heartaches of her own. The novel comes to a crisis when Francis decides to sell off the factory and a classmate of Tick’s, John Voss disappears and then resurfaces to carry out a killing spree in Tick’s classroom.
As one reviewer put it: “These are the people you see around you everyday who rarely if ever give you the opportunity to see what is truly inside them. Russo peels them open with the skill of a surgeon.Secret after secret is revealed--some clearly telegraphed, some cleverly obscured, waiting patiently for the proper moment. Different pieces of the story are related through the eyes of different characters giving a variety of points of view and insights and always leaving some doubt as to the reliability of what is being said. Characters are so often wound up in their own needs and desires that they fail to see adequately what is right in front of their nose. Russo is adept at portraying this kind of universal human blindness.
John Miles is an unlikely hero, but his dignity, his love for his daughter, his family and the town he grew up in, makes him a larger than life figure.
Please read them if you can. Really rewarding!

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