I found this book, written by an author I had never heard of before, by doing something very old fashioned: browsing in a bookstore. There are many forms of discovery, but finding a book you want to read in a store is still a great pleasure. And when you take it home and start reading it, and find out you made a lucky choice to read an exceptionally fine novel, that is a true and deeply rewarding experience.
I was surprised to learn that The Turtle Catcher is Nicole Helget’s first novel – she doesn’t write like a first novelist at all. The opening of this novel is absolutely perfect, and is beautifully written, setting the tone for a complicated, very often painful, but also engrossing story. Helget’s novel is mystical and magical, but these moments of “magical realism” where she enters another plane counterpoint brilliantly with the almost plainspoken story she has to tell about immigrant families in a German-American community in rural Minnesota in the early 20th century. The book is set in the now little discussed period just before, during and after World War I, a time that was very complicated for communities of recently arrived immigrants from the old country, with Germany now the enemy of their new homeland. The tensions within the town provide a taut backdrop for Helget’s for the focus of her story.
The author weaves together the lives of two families living on adjoining farms in the small town of New Germany, Minnesota. Liesel Richter and Lester Sutter are at the core of the book, along with their fathers and deeply suffering mothers, and what happens to Lester, told brilliantly and painfully in the opening scene of the book is the capstone to a long, rich story of families and communities, hidden wounds and deep suffering transformed into a kind of stoic transcendence Helget’s characters embrace, almost because it is all they are capable of doing in the face of such pain.
In The Turtle Catcher, Nicole Helget has created a multi-layered family story whose characters inhabit (and illustrate for readers) a specific place and time, but as with all great novels, through their story, they are transformed into something deeply moving and powerful. I really loved this novel, and will read it again, I am sure.
I wanted to talk to Nicole about the emotional content of the book, how she came to create this novel (it started with a short story), and discuss some of the complexities of her really wonderfully drawn characters. I think we succeeded in exploring this writer’s work in a really interesting conversation I hope will encourage readers to seek this novel out and read it for themselves. I do think Nicole Helget is a terrific writer, someone whose work I am deeply gratified to have discovered.
978-0312385859 – Hardcover – St. Martin’s Press -$24.99
The Art of Disappearing is simply a wonderful novel. And it’s the author, Ivy Pochoda’s first too. It’s beautifully written, flows naturally, and as with all great novels, it’s layered and complex. A story that transforms the reader’s experience can be considered a true work of art, and this is one of those.
This is a description from Ivy’s own website:
Toby Warring seems too young and too attractive to be sending drinks to strange women in a small-town Nevada saloon, but that is exactly how he meets Mel Snow, a textile designer who is selling her wares throughout the country. In a brief but strangely familiar conversation, Toby shows Mel that he is a rare “real” magician—actually creating the wine he places in front of her—and explains that all he has ever wanted is to perform in Las Vegas. They marry the next day.
You can read excerpts from the book here to get a feel for her writing, which is luminous. Magic is at the heart of the book, but it’s not about parlor tricks. In my interview with Ivy Pochoda, we talked about how she came to write this story, how it incorporates much of her own experience of place, and how she created the magical realism that imbues the book. Ivy grew up in Brooklyn in a very literary family, fell in love with writing and books early, went to Harvard (where she was a champion squash player, and lived in Amsterdam for several years. While living there, she started work on the novel and it is where much of The Art of Disappearing is set, though Las Vegas and the American west are also important locales for the book and its characters.
I love this novel and will be looking forward to the author’s next book.