"Perfume River" by Robert Olen Butler
From one of America’s most important writers, Perfume River is an exquisite novel that examines family ties and the legacy of the Vietnam War through the portrait of a single North Florida family.
Robert Quinlan is a seventy-year-old historian, teaching at Florida State University, where his wife Darla is also tenured. Their marriage, forged in the fervor of anti-Vietnam-war protests, now bears the fractures of time, both personal and historical, with the couple trapped in an existence of morning coffee and solitary jogging and separate offices. For Robert and Darla, the cracks remain under the surface, whereas the divisions in Robert’s own family are more apparent: he has almost no relationship with his brother Jimmy, who became estranged from the family as the Vietnam War intensified. Robert and Jimmy’s father, a veteran of WWII, is coming to the end of his life, and aftershocks of war ripple across their lives once again, when Jimmy refuses to appear at his father’s bedside. And an unstable homeless man whom Robert at first takes to be a fellow Vietnam veteran turns out to have a deep impact not just on Robert, but on his entire family.
So I admit it, I was a little daunted when I started this as it is written by a Pulitzer Prize winner - I was expecting something heavy and intense. However I found that I was quite gripped and was genuinely enjoying the story more than I had anticipated. It is in no doubt exceptionally well written literary fiction, but I found it a very absorbing, concise read with a distinctive narrative style and distinctive protagonist. There was so much in the book that really appealed and worked for me. As they say, never judge a book by its cover .......
The very topic of the Vietnam War and the dysfunctional relationships within the protagonist's family mean that it is not without intensity, emotion or gravitas but Butler's writing is very readable and very engaging. It is a relativity short book at around 250 pages so the story is actually very contained and focussed. Although there are quite a range of issues and relationships explored in the story, it was not overwhelming or overly complicated. I became immersed in Robert's world very quickly, I felt very much part of his journey and I found the alternate sections where the narrative switched to one of the few other main characters did not interrupt the flow of the story or the connection between the reader and Robert.
I would perhaps have liked some chapter breaks but that's more to do with the fact that I always struggle to put a book down and a chapter break might have made it easier to take a pause! However, reading without the enforced structure of chapters does increase the fluidity of the novel. Perhaps it accentuates that it is a little more of a shorter novel which is quite introverted, focussing on the build up, tensions and flashbacks which are preparing us for the climatic denouement.
The Vietnam War isn't something I can personally relate to and I wouldn't necessarily chose to read a book based around a man's experience in that war. Equally, I probably read more novels with female leads but I found it a really refreshing perspective to read about something different. I also really enjoyed the male characterisation and it reminded me of other American novels with male protagonists which I have enjoyed in the past.
"What are Robert Quinlan and his wife feebly arguing about when the homeless man slips quietly in? Moments later Robert could hardly have said. ObamaCare or quinoa or their granddaughter's new boyfriend. Something."
These are the intriguing opening lines. Effortlessly establishing atmosphere, character and a sense of time and place as well as tension. There are repeated references to specific brands which I found rooted the novel firmly in today's society as well as creating a contrast with some of the more dream like sequences, internal wanderings and flashbacks.
"They are focussed thinkers, Robert and Darla. They would, if pressed to consider the matter, attribute some of their focus to the mutual respect they have for each other's work. They need give each other not a single thought once they are sitting in these long familiar rooms."
The marriage between Robert and Darla is quite fascinating. A couple who seem detached and foreign from each other yet still connected. I thought the fact that "Their kindles have their own lights" was hugely metaphorical for how they lived their shared existence. I liked the description of their bedtime routine:
""Goodnight" she says, aware of the vanishing of his light in her periphery. "Goodnight," he says, though they have long ago agreed that the formality of his reply is unnecessary.....Nor do they kiss. They are so very familiar with each other. And that familiarity has become the presiding expression of their intimacy."
And the use of "a utilitarian kiss, surely, conveying gratitude for a courtesy rendered" equally effective as Butler explores the dynamics and relationship between the couple.
The other relationship which is explored in the novel is the one between Robert and his father and then that with his estranged brother, who has his own issues to confront.
"You didn't choose your parents. You didn't choose your land of birth. If you and they have nothing in common, if they are always, irrevocably at odds with each other, is it betrayal simply to leave family and country behind? No." (Jimmy, Robert's brother)
Robert's fixation with his experience in the war dominate the novel and even though it is so far in his past it slips into his daily thoughts. The war divides the brothers as well as their relationship with their father. A father who Robert is desperate to gain approval from and so set to follow in his footsteps, takes himself off to Vietnam.
".....who goes to war and sleeps and eats and drinks and writes letters and listens to music and falls safely in love in another country with an exotic girl and writes a resume and plans a future life and goes home; who goes to war to please your dad, to receive your dad's approval, to make your dad proud, to win your dad's love."
A sense of underlying violence runs subtly between the words, ever present in a manner that becomes more threatening until the final climax, when suddenly the action and drama becomes quite breathtaking.
This is an eloquent and mesmerising tale. The issues raised are profound and moving but the prose feels understated, simple and subtle. It is a book exploring the apathy of a long term marriage, mortality, ageing, family, love, estrangement and war. It is about damage, physically and emotionally. There are many lines which linger with you and many moments where it feels as if you need some time to absorb what Butler might be implying, suggesting or alluding to. It is intellectual and broaches many quite philosophical questions but overall, I found it did this effortlessly and was highly readable.
I would recommend this to people who enjoy literary fiction, American fiction, books with male protagonists and reading something that can conjure up quite complex situations and characterisations through a brevity of language and description.
My thanks to No Exit Press for an advanced copy of this book.
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