Books

The House of Widows by Askold Melnyczuk

Matthew Fiander

The difference between individual and collective history is blurred, and the miasma of wartime cannot bury individual betrayals.


The House of Widows

Publisher: Graywolf
Subtitle: A Novel
Author: Askold Melnyczuk
Price: 16.00
Length: 256
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 1555974910
US publication date: 2008-03
Amazon

James Pak, narrator and main character in The House of Widows, is a man reeling. The historian and lifelong academic is still, in the present day of the novel, dealing with his father's suicide years before. Framed in a present day dilemma -- another situation in which James must decide whether or not to divulge personal information with collective consequences -- James takes us back to his search for the truth about his father's suicide.

The wound is particularly hard to heal for James, since he was there to witness his father's violent death. That fact, given to us early on, informs the intensity with which he pursues truth. He often hides behind his role as historian, claiming this personal quest as nothing more than another trip down a mine of history. But, as we follow him through his quest we see how personally important it is. As he goes through England and Austria and Ukraine, and with the tone the modern day James inflects on his story, we can feel the hurt still coursing through him.

The hurt gets no better when with each stop, with each person met -- particularly his dying aunt Vera -- the truths surrounding his father, and his family as a whole, become more and more problematic. Vera, as it turns out, was integral in the international sex trade, and James' uncles know a great deal more about his father's situation than they initially let on.

Also adding to the tension is the political climate of the modern world. As he is on his quest, America is on the verge of invading Iraq. That fact makes James the butt of an awful lot of criticism as he travels through Europe. In one way, this makes for a useful obstacle in James' travels, pushing the information he seeks that much farther away. In another way, it becomes a plodding, overused way to remind us of international opinion. James is reminded more than once -- in fact, so many times that any reader, regardless of politics, will begin to roll their eyes -- about how America is an oil-fueled bully.

That discussion has its place in the novel, since much of the story concerns itself with the individual's role in collective history. So it paints James' search as a bit sinister, since he's an American selfishly stripping information and resources from another country. This is more the perception of other characters than it is actual reality, but it does provide a nice grinding between people, when that hand is not overplayed.

Ultimately, the more James learns about his father, the more we are pulled in. Melnyczuk does a fantastic job of borrowing from tales of mystery and international intrigue to stretch out tension and move the action of the novel along. It is a much needed movement as James, the historian, is unfailingly internal. So much so that, without all this history unfolding around him, he'd probably be unable to carry a story on by himself.

Melnyczuk injects his internal nature into this story of intrigue through a beautiful use of syntax and structure. The language sounds wistful and unmoored, the sound of a man still lost deep in the past. But once he dives back into his story, the tone changes to that of a man younger in his knowledge of the world, a man drowning in the waves of information coming his way.

Similarly, the overall make-up of the book supports its themes. For such a short book -- it is just over 250 pages -- we see it broken down into 12 parts, some of which are broken into their own chapters. That structure strengthens the notion that the history we are learning about is not one giant, unknowable thing, but instead a mosaic made of tiny, fragmented parts. The artifacts Pak retains from his father's life – his British military uniform, a letter in a language James doesn't recognize, and a glass jar – each get their own section here, their own separate moment of explication. They reveal first the father's mistakes, then the family's, and eventually expand and fold themselves into wartime errors before doubling back on James' own missteps. Family history becomes global history, and vica- versa.

The one setback in these fragments occurs when some take us away from James' perspective and into other points-of-view. It seems like a necessary move for this type of book, but sometimes serves to give the reader answers a little too easily, answers to plot questions that -- in the face of more important personal questions -- need not always be addressed.

James comes to learn his own role in his family's history and, when we return to his present day to finish the novel, we see him still coming to grips with that. How he reconciles with his past, step by step, will inform his next move. We see him inching towards a self-awareness he needs to act on, but whether or not he actually finds what he was seeking all along is a little murky. When we get to the end, we know his next move, but what we don't know is if he understands what that next move means.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Forty years after its initial release, one of the defining albums of US punk rock finally gets the legacy treatment it deserves.

If you ever want to start a fistfight in a group of rock history know-it-alls, just pop this little question: "Was it the US or the UK who created punk rock?" Within five minutes, I guarantee there'll be chairs flying and dozens of bloodstained Guided By Voices T-shirts. One thing they'll all agree on is who gave punk rock its look. That person, ladies, and gentlemen is Richard Hell.

Keep reading... Show less

Tokyo Nights shines a light on the roots of vaporwave with a neon-lit collection of peak '80s dance music.

If Tokyo Nights sounds like a cheesy name for an album, it's only fitting. A collection of Japanese city pop from the daring vintage record collectors over at Cultures of Soul, this is an album coated in Pepto-Bismol pink, the peak of saccharine '80s dance music, a whole world of garish neon from which there is no respite.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image