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Book Review: The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

                                 The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 384 pages; $24).

Iris Dupont, a budding high school journalist, carries on conversations with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow.  As she explains, “…Yes, I knew he’d been dead for forty-seven years, but why should a person limit her interlocutors to the living?”  Odd?  Yes.  Then again, Iris is not your typical young woman.  Quiet, introspective, and highly intelligent, Iris is just one of the quirky characters who drive Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly.

Miller’s title is an apt one.  Socrates’s critics called him the gadfly of Athens: “No matter how hard his opponents tried to swat him away, he kept biting them with difficult questions.”  Like Socrates, Iris is the horsefly in this story.  She asks the hard questions, the queries everyone else wants to sweep under a rug.

Iris has had a difficult year.  Her best friend, Dalia, dies.  The death sends Iris into a depression.  Her family moves so that Iris can attend storied Mariana Academy, whose code is “brotherhood, truth, [and] equality.”  The family rents a house that once was home to the former headmaster of the academy.  Iris sleeps in a room where the headmaster’s daughter once slept.  Her name was Lily.  Iris feels odd living there: “…Maybe we were dopplengangers, since I was a flower (Iris) and she was a flower (Lily).  Of course, Lilies were no competition for Irises…Lilies…reeked of death.  Even in new bloom, their sweetness smelled rotten.”

Foreshadowing is just one of the plot devices in which Miller shows off her skills.  Traveling to the school with her mother, Iris notices that “the mountainous peaks resembled teeth.  The road stretched between them like a black tongue.  And here we were, in our small vehicle, speeding toward that awful mouth.”  One cannot help but wonder if the school will swallow Iris.

To Iris, Mariana “screamed asylum more than school.”  Her journalistic nose senses something sinister within its walls, and her hunch is proven correct.  A powerful secret society called Prisom’s Party rules the school.  Prisom’s Party gets students expelled and even teachers fired.  What would Edward R. Murrow do?  She asks his ghost this question, and he answers her.

Iris decides she will investigate Prisom’s Party as she works on the school newspaper.  Miller makes it difficult for Iris at every turn.  And that is what makes this a good mystery.

Miller adds to the suspense by introducing two other characters and alternating the story among their distinctive points of view.  Jonah Kaplan is Iris’s teacher who once attended Mariana with his twin brother.  Because the story shifts back and forth through time, readers see the teenage Jonah, nerdy and unsure, and Mr. Kaplan, the instructor who instills fear and awe in his students.

Mr. Kaplan’s lessons are not only about biology; they are also about life: “Embracing extremity will bring out the characteristics that make you unique and independent–different from everybody else.”  Miller draws comparisons between adolescents and extremophiles (extreme-loving organisms) by illustrating how very few teens are left unscarred by adolescence.  The teenage years are difficult ones, and few emerge unscathed from those years.  Mr. Kaplan himself still carries the weight of his adolescence.

One of Miller’s biggest themes is bullying.  Prisom’s Party is, in all respects, the biggest bully on Mariana’s campus.  They may as well rule the school.  Miller shows how prevalent bullying is in schools all across the country and how dangerous bullying can be.

In a narrative that consists of flashbacks, Miller illustrates how Lily is bullied.  Lily is albino, and her difference makes her a target.  In contrast to the first-person narratives of Iris and Mr. Kaplan, Miller tells Lily’s story in the third person.  Yet the effect is not one of detachment.  Far from it.  Lily’s account may be the strongest in The Year of the Gadfly, especially when Iris finds a book called Marvelous Species that once belonged to Lily.  The book further intrigues Iris and plunges her deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding Prisom’s Party and Lily’s fate.

I recommend The Year of the Gadfly to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.  Miller’s story is intelligent, sharp, and eye-opening.  Miller shines as she describes the pain of adolescence and aptly compares high school to the political dealings of a Third World nation.  “In high school,” Miller warns, “you never knew who was your enemy and who was your friend.”  Keep that warning in mind as you read The Year of the Gadfly.  As in Miller’s novel, our enemies sometimes disguise themselves as our friends.  Iris should be vigilant.

Look at the new paperback cover!

Look at the new paperback cover!

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The Year of the Gadfly Giveaway

I am interviewing Jennifer Miller, the author of the upcoming novel The Year of the Gadfly.  If you could ask Miller one question, what would it be?  Since I have my own set of questions, if yours is the same as one of mine, you will not win.  Your query must be unique.  What I am looking for in a winner, then, is the best question you come up with that I have not.

The winner will get his or her question included with mine (with credit to you, of course!) and will get an ARC of The Year of the Gadfly.  All responses must be in by 3 pm ET on Friday, April 27.  At that time, I will choose the winner.

So I would love to hear what you want to know most!

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Spotlight Book: The Year of the Gadfly

I am on page 158 of one of the best novels I have read this year.  Make that any year.  It’s smart, engrossing, well-written, mysterious, and it hooked me on the first page.  It’s Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly

So far, I’ve taken five pages worth of notes on my advanced reading copy.  It’s that good.  Miller previously wrote Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East.  This is her first novel and will be published May 8.  Her website is byjennifermiller.com and you can follow her on Twitter @propjen and tweet about the novel using #Gadfly.

Her novel is set primarily inside the hallowed halls of Mariana Academy, in which a secret society wreaks havoc.  Ms. Miller tells the story from the varying viewpoints of Iris, Jonah, and Lily; for me, Iris and Edward R. Murrow steal the show.  Edward R. Murrow?  Well, you just have to read it! 

I recommend it for fans of Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea, Carol Goodman’s The Lake of Dead Languages, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

I now have to go back to reading.  Hope to interview Ms. Miller on my blog.  Have lots of questions to ask!

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War Is Hell

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (Blue Rider Press; 272 pages; $24.95).

            War is hell.  If you do not believe me, just ask Robert Bales, the US Army officer accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians, including women and children.  Bales suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition many servicemen and women face.  Although PTSD does not excuse Bales’ actions, it does help explain them.  Experiences on a battlefield alter a person.  How could they not?  After a conflict is long over, a soldier’s symptoms of PTSD remain and may worsen over time.

PTSD does not affect only those in the Armed Forces.  The condition also affects family members whose loved ones died in combat and even people in the countries we are fighting.  In his sparse yet elegant debut The Book of Jonas, Stephen Dau effectively gives us stories of all three grappling with the horrors of war.

Dau is at his best when he shows us the indelible damages war inflicts on us all.  The wounds left over from combat are not just physical, not just injuries, body counts, and ravaged landscapes.  The Book of Jonas zeroes in on the emotional, mental, and psychological scars that time will probably never heal.

That sentiment best describes Dau’s main character, Jonas, a troubled young man touched by unspeakable tragedy.  The US Army destroys Jonas’ entire village; he is the lone survivor.  A war orphan, Jonas comes to America to live with an American family.  While on the plane to America, Jonas is met with his first challenge: what to call himself.

Jonas is not his real name.  His given name is Younis.  On the plane, he changes it to Jonas; thus, he renames himself.  Instead of this being empowering for him, I see it as an example of just how utterly lost Jonas feels.  He is now disengaged from everything he ever knew and disconnected from his country.  His detachment continues.

In school, classmates ridicule and even bully Jonas.  To them, Jonas is just too different.  His accent, his ways, and his place of birth make him stand out in all the wrong ways.  Jonas is Othered.  When the bullying of his classmates turns violent, Jonas fights back.  His schoolmates do not get in trouble for fighting, but Jonas does.  The school forces him to see a psychologist.

Jonas’ visits to the psychologist, Paul, are a real boon to readers.  We learn more about Jonas as a result.  Paul gradually gets Jonas to tell us the full story behind the attack on his village and its aftermath.  However, Jonas is an unreliable narrator.  This makes him all the more interesting to me, but, as a reader, one must be careful not to take what Jonas says as truth.  His memories of the past contradict what really happened.  Jonas is clearly suffering from PTSD.

One thing is certain: after his village is bombed, Jonas retreats to a cave.  He is badly injured.  He almost dies.  An American soldier saves Jonas.  The kicker is that the soldier then vanishes.

Jonas learns the soldier, Christopher, is missing from a newspaper article.  Paul suggests it may help Jonas if he meets Rose, Christopher’s mother.  So Jonas travels to her home.

Rose is herself suffering.  She wants closure.  Her son is missing and no one, not the government, not the Army, and not those he served with, know what happened to him.  Rose only wants his body so she can mourn him.  Dau does not use Rose enough.  Her character shows us what survivors go through day after day as they struggle with the simple act of living.  Rose is desperate for answers from Jonas, especially after Jonas tells her the story of how her son saved him.  Jonas swears he does not know anything.  But is this unreliable narrator telling the truth?  What really happened to Christopher?

The character of Christopher is almost chilling.  He and his unit have been in countless battles against insurgents, and they have paid the price.  Dau uses Christopher’s diary entries to illuminate his intensity and his obsession with battle.  Christopher’s account is hurried and disjointed.  Christopher and his unit seem hungry with power; indeed, they are almost drunk with it.   Their bombing of Jonas’ village is an act of revenge.  Dau makes it clear Christopher has PTSD.  As I read his diary entries, I feel as if Christopher will ultimately commit suicide in the cave with Jonas.  Yet Christopher’s fate is one even I did not see coming.  I applaud Dau for superbly crafting an ending no one can see coming.

Dau’s portrayal of war is brutal.  It is almost as if warfare is as inherent in our genes as eyecolor and diabetes.  Early in the novel, Christopher describes a scene in Africa that forever stays with him.  A lioness had lost her cub and was bereft.  She was in a pack that had recently killed a gazelle.  A baby gazelle was then left alone, also filled with a sense of loss.  The lioness and the gazelle seemed to take comfort in the other’s presence.  The lioness mothered the gazelle.  Heartbroken, they adopted each other.  But it had been three days since she had last eaten.  The pack was hungry, too.  Animals get hungry and their survival skills kick in.  You can guess what happens.

The lioness and the gazelle adorn the cover of Dau’s book.  The pictures are more than just ornamental.  The lioness and the gazelle symbolize Christopher and Jonas.  They may, in fact, be a wider metaphor for warring countries.  The account foreshadows events that occur later on in the novel and strengthens his narrative in ways you have to read to appreciate.

In his timely, unfliching debut, Dau gives me much to ponder as he explores the high cost of war to both sides.  I recommend The Book of Jonas for those who enjoy Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke), and Megan K. Stack (Every Man in This Village is a Liar).  I come away with the knowledge that we are not doing enough to help those suffering from PTSD.  War does not only ravage landscapes; conflict also destroys people.  We should remember that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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