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Book Review: From Blood, by Edward Wright

A reviewer of From Blood (2010) in the Sydney Morning Herald thought the book ‘may well catapult Wright into the front line of crime’. And then again it may not. Wright has received awards for several of his earlier novels, but while this is a good read, I don’t think it’s a great one.

I categorise From Blood as being a mystery story, one where an ordinary person – more or less – becomes involved with crime by accident. Such stories often arise from a collision of past and present, where a character seeks to explain how present circumstances have been affected by past events. They often take the form of a search or a quest. This book has both these characteristics. It also has a good idea for a story.

Shannon Fairchild is a mess. She’s dropped out of university, feels alienated from her family and can’t stay out of trouble – most recently a court appearance over a bar room fight. She knows her parents love her, and she doesn’t want to hurt them, but can’t seem to be what they want her to be. Then disaster strikes. Her mother and father are shot, and their house is destroyed by fire. But before her mother dies, she manages to tell Shannon that she must find ‘them’ and warn them. Who are they and warn them of what? That is her quest.

She soon finds that her gentle, academic parents have a past, having been involved in violent student protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. We know from the prologue that protest against the War involved violence and murder, promoted by a tiny faction of revolutionaries. Some of her parents’ friends from that time are wanted by the FBI and are still on the run. Could these old allegiances have something to do with their deaths?

As in all quest stories, Shannon receives both help and hindrance from people she meets in the course of her search. She has particular difficulties in dealing with the local police and the FBI; what can she tell them? Are they friends or enemies? The trajectory of her quest is well done: there is progress, there are setbacks and there is a twist, all leading to a tense and dramatic conclusion. In retrospect, you can see the twist is subtly hinted at along the way.

The question of what motivates the protagonist to continue with a difficult and dangerous quest is also at play here. In this case, Shannon’s family circumstances are what motivate her. But are these sufficiently convincing? I felt doubtful about this, and went in search of material about memory in infants. It seems the way Shannon feels has some basis in the scientific literature, so maybe it’s just that Wright isn’t quite convincing on the topic. He initially goes into quite a lot of detail about Shannon’s state of mind and her sense of alienation, but then lets psychology be subsumed by the action when her psychological state should be central to her further motivation. Some other admittedly minor aspects of the plot also get dropped and don’t in any case seem to contribute much to the story. Furthermore, the motivations of some other characters may suit the action but aren’t really psychologically convincing.

In earlier books, Wright has used 1940s Los Angeles, including the House Committee for Un-American Activities’ pursuit of Hollywood writers, producers and actors, for the background to his stories. (He even has an Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award to show for it.) The Red Fist anti-war organisation mentioned in this story is imaginary, though the Weather Underground is real: here’s more about them. Though events of the 1906s and 70s are the springboard for the action, the book is set in the early 2000s during the second Gulf War. There aren’t a lot of historical markers tying it to this period, but there is mention of the war, and of the bombings in Oklahoma City and the underground garage of the World Trade Centre, and the destruction of the Twin Towers. Are these different in nature from the earlier anti-war violence? Can violent protest ever be justified? ‘When all else has failed … how do you deal with this kind of arrogance?’ asks one character. It’s an interesting question. But there is only marginal discussion of it. No specific distinction, for example, is drawn by any character in the story between home-grown and foreign terrorism, or between the ends to which these acts were directed. I find this limits any depth the book might aspire to. I wondered at times just what Wright was saying about violent protest in the cause of social betterment – he doesn’t use the word terrorism – as I don’t think the story constitutes an outright condemnation of it – though others may disagree on that.

I’m hardly knowledgeable about American literature, but the only other well-known book that I’m aware of that deals with violent protest against the Vietnam War – ‘indigenous American berserk’ – is Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which I reviewed here.

Edward Wright is a former journalist. You can read more about him and his work here.

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