Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The House of Widows by Askold Melnyczuk

James Pak is a smart guy-he's heading to Oxford and his qualifications are impeccable.  He knows the facts of history, is well-educated in most fields,  has a gentlemanly manner, is apparently good looking, and cash doesn't seem to be an issue.  He seems to have it all together, except for the haunting questions about his father's suicide that nag at him in inopportune moments.  His main problem seems to be that while he studies the facts of history, he doesn't understand the emotions that are interlinked with it.  Unless one can ascertain both, they aren't prepared to deal with some of the ugly truths that surround them.

In this novel, The House of Widows, we see James try to make sense of it all.  He travels to one of his father's oldest friends, looking for answers.  Much about her is veiled in mystery, and her strange brother and her adopted Palestinian daughter complicate James' understanding as well.  He discovers that what he thought about his father was so wrong that it has to change how he thinks about himself.  In fact, James plays the unreliable narrator to perfection.

The novel travels throughout the world, with James on a quest for answers, yet ignorant to some of the solutions he carries with him.  War is a repeating motif that underlines the emotional ties to history.  They can't be separated and defined on a page.  And the trouble that comes with searching for answers is realizing that the answers may be worse than your imagination.  On top of that is the knowledge that in many cases, such as the Middle East (where portions of this book take place), there are no easy answers that are palatable to all.

A few times my jaw dropped in shock at some of the revelations, and at other times I was a bit overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all.  It is may find it difficult to put down, which is probably for the best because it's easy to lose track of each character if you step away for long.  Be prepared for surprises, and if you really want to appreciate it, have a map of Western Europe at hand.  The only thing that mildly annoyed me about the book was some of the dialogue felt surreal-a bit unrealistic in the way seemingly ordinary people speak.  Yet that too reveals part of the complexities of their emotional baggage.

Special thanks to Erin Kottke from Graywolf Press for the Review Copy.


  1. I love how your reviews make very difficult reads seem accessible. Thanks, Amy!