This dust-jacket photo should look familiar to TLC readers. It appeared a few weeks ago in a list of new books coming out in September in which I wrote of the book, “the plot portends an intriguing read.”  This fiction debut proves to be just that. It’s an unusual story about the deportation of Armenians from Turkey in 1915, engaging us with a strong narrative voice, rich historic settings, foreboding tragedy and troubled relationships.

The narrator and protagonist are 92-year-old Emmett Con, who participated in that inhumane event as a teen-aged gendarme in the Ottoman army, herding thousands of Armenians across the desert toward Aleppo, Syria, in what today is often referred to as the first modern genocide. Starvation, disease, rape and murder took place during the forced march  intended to rid Turkey of an ethnic group the Turkish government feared would revolt and demand autonomy.

But Emmett has long been deprived of his past. A head injury during World War I took away his memory and landed him in a London hospital in 1917. There he met his American wife. She brought him to the United States, where Ahmet Kahn became Emmett Conn, working in various trades and raising a family. Now, 72 years later, his life changes dramatically with the onset of a brain tumor that brings back the forgotten past in vivid dreams. 

Author Mark T. Mustian moves the story between present and past with seamless dexterity and impressive characterization of Conn the old man and Kahn the younger man. The former entertains loose thoughts, unpredictable actions and surly reproaches toward family and friends, and they ring as true as that of any 92-year-old that broods, mopes and acts like a child. The latter is of a more cruel nature, guarding the Armenians with indifference, until he’s attracted to an Armenian girl with one light eye and one dark eye. Their relationship  creates tension in the story, as Ahmet struggles between loyalty to the army and his desire to win the girl’s respect.

Symptoms of the tumor erratically drop Emmett into sleep, as well as seize him with behaviors that react to the dreams. These alarm his daughter, who admits him to a psych facility for observation and medication. Emmett, however, fights to stay connected to the dreams and his past. Eventually, shame and regret from the wartime horrors he witnessed and participated in weigh heavy on his conscience and drive him toward finding forgiveness.

The resolution of the two stories, coming together in the end, is the weakest part of the novel, told with less realism than the powerful story before it. It’s a small matter, though, because Emmett, by this point, has captured us with his surrender to an overwhelming, unimaginable past and his hope for renewal. He’s the kind of character you remember long after his story has been told.

Football Friday nights and tailgating Saturday afternoons are on the horizon. So, too, good books from new and established writers. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is getting a lot of attention, including a cover shot of Franzen on Time magazine. Other books also are getting attention, just more quietly. Here are some scheduled for September publication. A note about October books at the end. 

The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian: A first novel published by Putnam’s Amy Einhorn imprint that brought us Kathryn Stockett’s debut, The Help. This is the story of 92-year-old Emmet Conn who’s suffered memory loss all his life from a war injury in World War I. Now, due to a brain tumor, long-suppressed memories surface in dreams and visions. “What does it mean to forget, and then remember?” asks the author’s website. Set in Turkey in the beginning of the 20th Century and America at the end, the plot portends an intriguing read.

The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass: This is the fourth novel by 2002 National Book Award-winner Glass (Three Junes). Her new story focuses on a retired man named Percy Darling who gives the barn on his historic farm to a local preschool. Naturally, there are unexpected consequences. From the publisher’s website: “With equal parts affection and satire, Julia Glass spins a captivating tale about the loyalties, rivalries, and secrets of a very particular family. Yet again, she plumbs the human heart brilliantly, dramatically, and movingly.” 

Room by Emma Donoghue.  This 2010 Man Booker longlist candidate is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who lives with his mother in a small room where they’re held captive. Jack’s mother was abducted seven years ago, and Jack is a result of the sexual relationship she’s forced to have with her abductor. From Emma Donoghue’s website:    “…ROOM is no horror story or tearjerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child. VOGUE calls it ‘A dark fairy tale… curiously uplifting.’” From Library Journal: “Gripping, riveting, and close to the bone, this story grabs you and doesn’t let go.” 

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.  Another 2010 Man Booker longlist candidate, this is the story of a boy at an elite boarding school in Dublin, Ireland, and the circumstances surrounding his death. You can purchase either the omnibus version (closing in on 700 pages) or three paperbacks in a set. Definitely a reading commitment but, considering the praise this novel’s received, I’m betting it’s a worthy investment of time. You can read an excerpt from the book on the Guardian website.

Vestments by John Reimringer: A debut novel published by small press Milkweed Editions about a priest torn between his love for the church and love for a woman. On Reimringer’s website, Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “suspenseful, illuminating and highly readable.” You can read an excerpt on the Milkweed Editions website, which says this about the book: “Originally drawn to the priesthood by the mystery, purity, and sensual fabric of the Church, as well as by its promise of a safe harbor from his violent father, James finds himself—just a few years after his ordination—attracted again to his first love, Betty García. Torn between these competing loves, and haunted by his father’s heritage, James finds himself at a crossroads.”

October books:  Looking further ahead, in October we can anticipate books from established authors Bernhard Schlink (author of The Reader), Michael Cunningham (author of Pulitzer Prize-winner The Hours) and, no surprise, the prolific Philip Roth.

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