Review: Hangdog Souls

Hangdog Souls, Marc Joan. London: Deixis Press, 2022.

Summary: A fugitive English soldier in southern India makes a Faustian bargain winning endless life at the cost of countless others over three centuries.

John Saunders is a fugitive English soldier in the Dravidian highlands of southern India as the British colonials are invading. He has a beautiful wife and an adorable son, who has captured the eye of the corrupt ruler with a mysterious machine in the dome of his castle complex. John is feigning that he is Portuguese and has brought seeds of eucalyptus trees that he hopes to establish in the highlands, making his fortune. As the British lay siege, he plans an escape for himself and huis family, but is found out by the ruler, who offers him a Faustian bargain, to become the “bridge” for souls, offering them a better world for their lives.

His trees are saved, and recur throughout the succeeding vignettes. But his wife and son are not. But John cannot die, even from a wound that nearly beheads him. He must live with his shame while ushering others to their fate. The story unfolds as a series of vignettes over 300 years. A priest burdened with the death of his wife Emma who encounters John. A butterfly enthusiast seeking the Black Papilio, and finding so much more. A functionary of the Sarpal Tea Company sent to the Kalisholi estates to investigate accounts ends up offering himself to a snake at a time when the local gods demand five garlands, five lives. A tourist glimpsing the mysterious woman in a blue sari, An embalmer who must create images of three gods using human corpses. A boy indentured to an uncle who immolates himself after listening to John’s story.

On it goes until three hundred years later, a Keralan particle physicist, Chandy John, involved in an experiment that has driven the previous scientist mad. Will he succumb to the burden of his own losses and griefs, having lost his wife in a tragic accident or will he break the cycle?

The book revolves around the question: What weight can balance the death of an innocent? How much grief must John bear for the grief he causes, and for how long? When will the scales be balanced? John is able to do what he does because of the griefs others bear. The appeal of escape through death, perhaps atoning for one’s guilt and shame. But the question makes us wonder if in fact whether there is any human counterweight to the death of an innocent?

I’ve seen this book classified in the horror genre. It seemed to me to have elements of horror, historical fiction, and magical realism about it. I’m not sure I know what it is. For the first hundred pages or so, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Yet as story after story unfolded, variations on a theme I found myself wondering how or whether this would all end, and drawn into the storytelling to find out.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: A fictional narrative of a Georgia slave, Cora, who with another slave escapes the plantation, and through a series of harrowing experiences, and the existence of an actual underground railroad with trains and engineers, escapes to the North.

The Underground Railroad has received critical acclaim, winning a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. This is a very good book, portraying the brutal realities of Antebellum slavery on cotton plantations, the brutalities of slave owners, overseers, patrollers and night riders, and slave hunters. The character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, is among the great evil characters of fiction. The protagonist, Cora, is a resilient, even fiercely determined character who will murder more than on of her potential captors, even while both angered and motivated by her mother Mabel, who escaped while she was a little girl and never was caught.

Cora agrees to escape the Randall Plantation with Caesar when Terrence Randall, a tyrant, takes over for his deceased brother.  Caesar has learned from a sympathetic merchant of an underground railroad that will take slaves to freedom. At the last minute, another slave, Lovey, joins in, but is soon captured while Caesar and Cora, who fatally bludgeons a young man attempts to hold her, escape and contact the station master. What they find is an underground railroad that is no metaphor but a vast subterranean rail network with rails, trains, and engineers, built by those engaged in the fight against slavery.

Their flight takes them to South Carolina, where they hide under assumed names in an “enlightened” town educating them for citizen, but with underlying sinister motives. Ridgeway shows up and Cora escapes, but Caesar is taken. Cora arrives unexpected at a closed down station in a North Carolina town on a freedom crusade of lynchings and house searches. Reluctantly, Martin and Ethel Wells shelter her, running a terrible risk. In the end Ridgeway finds her and takes her into Tennessee, where she is rescued by Royal, a militant version of Harriet Tubman. One of Ridgeway’s men is killed, Ridgeway bound and left to die, and they escape to a utopian Freedom Farm in Indiana. But will they be safe even here?

The plot is interrupted by “flashbacks” that fill in content, but felt like an interruption. But the feature that worked the least for me was the railroad. This aspect of the book had a magical realism feel, and just didn’t work for me, but then I’ve never been a fan of this technique/genre. It seems that the main function of the railroad was to get Cora to the next scene of action, where the real interest and the strength of this narrative lay. We see the courage of station masters, to be sure, but the actual journey, the risks run by slaves, and in many cases, rescuers like Tubman seemed to be minimized, even though the title suggests a focus on the railroad. I also found the decisions to stay in South Carolina, and later Indiana, somewhat implausible when all slaves knew their only chance of safety, especially from figures like Ridgeway, was Canada. I might have liked some documentation of sources for the portrayals slave conditions and race hatred, and some comment on what was based on fact, along the lines of what Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All in all, the  plotline, strong characters, and portrayal of slavery and race hatred make this a good and important work. I think it could be more powerful if it portrayed the efforts of the historical underground railroad. But the portrayal of slavery and racism in this book is important to our nation conversation. To meaningfully, say “never again” we must understand to what we are saying “never again.”


Review: Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006).

Summary: Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers.

Salman Rushdie is a native of India of Muslim descent most often known for his book The Satanic Verses, the publication of which resulted in a fatwa calling for his assassination. Since 2000, he has lived in New York City. This novel, his second, brought him to the attention of the literary world and was awarded the Booker Prize and was selected one of the hundred best novels of all time by the Modern Library.

The central figure, Saleem Sinai, is narrating his life to Padma, “the pickle woman” who is taking care of him. Central to his life story is that he was born at the stroke of midnight at the moment India gained its Independence. He sees himself as a twin with India, and that his experiences and actions are intertwined with that of the country. His life and family dysfunctions and travails parallel those of India. In his personal history, he gets caught up in the Indo-Pakistan wars and Bangladeshi independence.

He and the other babies born in the first hour of Independence all have unusual powers. Saleem’s is the ability to telepathically link them together in the “Midnight Children’s Conference” where they deliberate how they might use their powers in their young country. The hopeful promise of these children is not attained, and one, Shiva, who was switched with Saleem at birth is a destroyer, symbolized by his powerful knees, while Saleem’s sensitivities are symbolized by his nose that can sniff out not only smells but dispositions and longings.

Rushdie writes in the genre of magical realism, similar to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Noses, knees, serpents, and impotent men recur through the book. When Saleem’s wife goes into labor, at the beginning of the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, she labors thirteen days, until the emergency lifts. In all of this, the life story of Saleem is mystically linked with the nation.

The challenge in reading this work is both remembering this connection and understanding the history of India during the time spanned by the novel (1947 to 1979). One wishes, particular in the newer edition, that it would have been annotated for those not deeply acquainted with this history. Rushdie himself observes that western readers tend to read this novel as fantasy while readers from India see the book as almost a history.

We trace the central figure from the hopefulness and growing awareness of boyhood to a growing sense of pathos, sadness and, indeed impotence, perhaps reflecting the frustration of India’s hopes, particularly during the Indira Gandhi rule. A life story, that of its own seems sad, and at points dysfunctional, in fact becomes commentary for the early years of India’s statehood. Sadly, this narrative could be the story of many post-colonial states. But Saleem has a son, and perhaps a new generation…. Perhaps.

Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have friends who truly think this is an amazing book. You have to help me. Just not sure I get it. No, it isn’t the magical realism thing. I get that and got used to crazy things like insomnia plagues, gypsies with flying carpets, children being carried away with the laundry. Garcia Marquez definitely has a creative imagination!

The story in brief centers around the mythical town of Macondo, somewhere in Latin America, settled by people escaping Western colonialists. They were led by Jose Arcadio Buendia and his cousin-wife Ursula. Much of the plot focuses around the decadence of this inbred, incestuous family who keep breeding sons named Jose Arcadio or Aureliano. At one point there are even 17 Aurelianos who are all systematically hunted down and killed as the government tries to snuff out the revolutionary movement led by Colonel Aureliano Buendia. From a glorious beginning, the village and the family spiral down into insanity and decadence, abetted by the banana planters, the government executioners, and a several year monsoon that rotted everything and was followed with termites and ants who literally ate the village.

Yes, we see a chronicle of human nature, almost a second creation and fall story. We see a story of family tragedy. We see the inevitability of decline and fall in this miniature, fantastic civilization. But we also have a tawdry tale of incest, child abuse, and sexual obsession. It occurred to me that this would be a great family for Dr Phil to do an intervention with.

Yes, this is a book beautifully and imaginatively written. Yes, it exposes the dark underside of our human nature and our inability to escape our own inner demons, of ourselves. While I don’t expect serious fiction to have “they all lived happily ever after” endings and it doesn’t surprise me to see the tawdry elements of life, there is nothing elevating or ennobling about this book. It seems we are either nothing more than the sum of our physical desires, or deluded if we think there is anything more to it. There is no redemption. Religious figures are simply buffoons, other than the magician Melquiades, who, if anything simply captivates the men of this family in delusion and a fatalism that leads to their destruction.

I know this is supposed to be one of the great books of this past century. At this point, I have to admit that I am scratching my head wondering why? Maybe those of you who really loved it can illuminate me.

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