Until the vaccine comes, there’s this

Big5+ Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I want a satisfying and optimistic fantasy tale of a man finding out what really matters to him.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 393

Publisher: Tor

From the publisher: Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

This was the book I didn’t know I needed. It touches on themes that have been painful this year, but redeems them in a way that restores hope in humanity without ever being glib or ignoring the ugliness that can be part of the equation.

This year has fairly vibrated with a sense of powerlessness. Can I, just one person, do anything about all of the big issues that are facing all of us? What can I do about institutional racism, or the pushback against LGBQTIA+ people that runs from casual verbal cruelty to outsized paranoia over what bathroom to use? How can I keep me and mine safe from COVID-19 when people are pretending it doesn’t exist? Then there’s the tick-tick-tick of climate change in the background.

“It’s not only this village, Mr. Baker. Just because you don’t experience prejudice in your everyday doesn’t stop it from existing for the rest of us.”

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Into all that mess comes this sweet and positive tale that doesn’t pretend change is easy or fast, but asserts strongly that change is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s something that each individual can contribute to. Linus Baker, the everyman protagonist of the tale in a close third narrative, does his moral best within the context of his limited powers, but doesn’t really look past his immediate surroundings to see what kind of consequences there might be, the quintessential well-meaning soul who unintentionally contributes to the status quo. His life is upended by a special assignment to the eponymous house.

He’d accepted long ago that some people, no matter how good their heart was or how much love they had to give, would always be alone. It was their lot in life, and Linus had figured out, at the age of twenty-seven, that it seemed to be that way for him.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Self-deprecating, isolated, but dedicated to his job because of a fundamental conviction that children deserve to be safe and cared for, he’s easy to root for. His character growth is fundamental to the story, and it occurs incrementally and believably. I generally hate it when characters have sudden changes of heart because of one particular dramatic incident; those can help, but my life’s experience tells me that people must already be in motion for a drama to move them to a new position.

Then there are all the other quirky and charming characters, as well as the people you love to hate. T.J. Klune has a gift for sketching memorable characters quickly, so small roles such as Ms. Bubblegum, J-Bone, Marty, the train conductor, and the post office guy are almost as memorable as the main cast. There’s the yearning-for-purpose Chauncey, spiders-in-the-brain Lucy, singing-to-the-earth Phee, nibbling-to-communicate Theodore, I-want-to-be-round Talia, and future poet laureate Sal. These children are all lovable, but I must confess some favoritism for Chauncey and Sal.

Many considered them to be nuisances, and for a long time, they were hunted down, their heads used as trophies, their skin made into fashionable shoes. It wasn’t until laws were enacted protecting all magical creatures that the barbaric acts ceased, but by then, it’d almost been too late, especially in the face of empirical evidence that wyverns were capable of emotionally complex reasoning that rivaled even humans.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Arthur Parnassus, however, doesn’t appear to play favorites. The father figure and teacher who heads up the school Linus must investigate is the guy we’d have all wanted to have our backs as students. However, he’s probably the least well-developed character in the book, but that I can forgive that because 1. we’re seeing him through Linus’s obscured vision and 2. it’s necessary for plot reasons.

He was as fresh-faced as the young people who came into DICOMY with their shiny degrees and ideas about how things should be done rather than how they actually were. They quickly learned to fall into line. Idealism had no place in government work.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

Then there are all the characters who only appear in a scene or two, and yet they are memorable. Klune has a knack of adding just the right details to sketch them quickly and convincingly.

She was a stern woman, hair pulled back so severely that it brought her unibrow up to the middle of her forehead. He wondered every now and then if she had ever smiled in her life. He thought not. Ms. Jenkins was a dour woman with the disposition of an angry snake.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The bit that made it hard for me get get going on the book was the music (although, to be fair, once I got past the first third of the book, I could not put it down). It mostly put me in mind of the first time I watched A Knight’s Tale. As a hardcore history buff (or antiquarian, if you want to go with my history prof’s label), I was startled when Queen showed up at a tourney:

Yes, in the purely fictional world (I’d thought) of The House in the Cerulean Sea, all of a sudden The Everly Brothers’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is playing in this other reality. Of course, fictional music would not have had the same emotional impact as “Beyond the Sea” or “You Send Me,” so it made a certain kind of sense, but it was a bit jarring, just like “We Will Rock You” showing up in what I thought was a period film. (Yes, my expectations for A Knight’s Tale were all wrong.) On balance, I see why Klune made that choice, but I wish there had been another way to get the effect he wanted.

As Bobby Darin sang about watching ships from golden sands, Linus moved through the dream, fingers tracing along the books on the table. He barely glanced down at the titles, entranced by the telltale scratch of a record spinning.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

The other jarring note was the use of the exact phrase that was born of 9/11: “See something. Say something.” I, too, found this formulation disturbing in our world, and to hear it echoed in the book brought me out of the fantasy world Klune had made. Perhaps it was to point to the thematic links between the worlds, but it felt like a moment where he was jumping up and down and saying “Look what I’m saying about the US,” taking focus from the story to the author and his message.

Hate is loud, but I think you’ll learn it’s because it’s only a few people shouting, desperate to be heard.

T.J. Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea

All that aside, at the core of this book is a question man has debated for centuries (and probably woman as well, but we didn’t get recorded much until recently): Are we born evil or made that way? Can we rise above our genetic/hereditary/nature? Can people change? This is not just a philosophical jaunt. The side you take on the debate seems to have endless ramifications about how you treat crime, poverty, drugs, and a slew of other questions with practical political applications. I believe, on some level, it is the answer to that question that lies behind all of the current conflict in the US, because how you treat humanity at large (as opposed to the folks you actually know), really depends on the answer to that question.

Linus has avoided this question about the nature of humanity and is forced to confront it, if only implicitly. Despite the two types of intrusions where our realities overlap, I loved this book. And I learned that buttons are awesome. Nope, not going to explain; read the book and know the power of a button.


Not your lit class’s Jane Eyre

Prepublication Big5+ review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want a thriller inspired by Jane Eyre narrated by a not-unwarrantedly suspicious, impoverished alumna of the foster care system.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/5/2021

From the publisher: Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates––a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

In the rivalry between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (which I get), just as passionate as the Star Wars vs. Star Trek arguments (which I don’t), I’m definitely a Jane Eyre girl, so this new novel got my attention quite quickly. Rachel Hawkins’s clever reworking of Jane Eyre is an homage to the original but manages to be fresh. She’s not just dressing up the classic in modern clothes, but picking and choosing elements to create a new and fascinating whodunit. 

The reworking also forces you to think of things that were formerly hidden behind Charlotte Brontë‘s polite Victorian prose. Foster homes of her period were no kinder then than now, and the soot filled past obscures much of the permanent damage the original Jane would have sustained from her environment. Brontë’s novel was ground-breaking at the time, and does not portray Jane’s childhood as rosy, but the consciousness of what was done is different, probably because we actually discuss the effects of trauma more openly now than then.

I don’t miss the hard look in her eyes. One thing growing up in the foster system has taught me was to watch people’s eyes more than you listened to what they said. Mouths were good at lying, but eyes usually told the truth.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Like the original, it’s a first-person narrative; unlike the original, it’s not just Jane we here from. Bea (Bertha’s nickname) is also heard from, and even Eddie gets a turn at the mike. The multiple points of view are well-marked and separate, adding rather than detracting from the story. It’s a little odd (and jolting) when the text shifts from first- to third-person in Bea’s sections, but the publisher has used italics to separate the two perspectives, so they’re easy to follow. I think I’d have preferred to have those first person as well, realizing Bea might be an unreliable narrator, but it works well enough in Hawkins’s capable prose.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her either.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Jane’s discussion of privilege, in the sense of wealth and education, is deft. It’s enough to make you aware of the issues of class without descending into an overt morality play. The role her formative years had in her ability to trust pervades the narrative, making her understandably cautious. This was a prime example of a character giving you a way into a different perspective and making actions you might ordinarily find morally indefensible suddenly becoming, if not justified, at least understandable.

Wanting things? Sure. that’s been a constant in my life, my eyes catching the sparkle of something expensive on a wrist, around a neck; pictures of dream houses taped to my bedroom wall instead of whatever prepubescent boy girls my age were supposed to be interested in.

But I’ve been dodging men’s hands since I was twelve, so wishing a man would touch me is a novel experience.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The world in which the story unfolds is well built. Hawkins chooses her details well, and you can viscerally feel the comfortable, elegant, and monied world. It’s also a very Southern world, set in Birmingham, Alabama, where Southern Living is the magazine of choice and magnolias and gossip framed in sympathy. It’s a very white world, though, which surprised me a little, knowing the demographics. But the setting is a wealthy, white microcosm, so I personally didn’t find it problematic.

She’s been gone nearly a year, but the arrangement of lilies and magnolias on the front table of my house were hers, and every time I walk past them, it’s like I’ve just missed seeing her, that she’s just stepped out for a second.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The novel moves along at a nice clip, but still allows things to unravel slowly enough to build tension. The story jumps along timelines, but Hawkins is always in control of them, so there’s never a moment when you’re confused about when you are.

Overall, a masterful book that even a Wuthering Heights fan might love.