1668 Juno Ave., St Paul, MN 55116
Dear Reviewer, Bookseller, or Reader,
By far the strongest reason I recommend The Pale Surface of Things is its story-ness. Right from the beginning, it simply has the natural spring of story, the kind of story that comes out of the characters and therefore is full of feeling and free of contrivance.
A lot happens fast. The characters distress or puzzle one another right from the first scene. Other characters enter quickly. The pace is inner, not extroverted, despite all the action. I emphasize this point because so much American literature set in foreign places is graveled over with external details that have no particular meaning. The Pale Surface of Things takes place in a mountain village of western Crete and the nearby city, Chania. Americans and Cretans play out their personalities in some appalling and some heart-warming ways that affect the other people around them.
These people include both serious and shallow Americans, some heroic and some retro machismo Cretans. Some of their interactions are hilarious, others satisfyingly poisonous. The incident that begins the story is the callow young American male escaping on foot (being an ex-trackman) from his own wedding. His adventures include himself assaulting someone, nearly losing his own life in a cave, taking a moral licking from another American, a young Californian-Cretan who has come to Crete to be the village’s Orthodox priest. We meet an unscrupulous bully whose father had been a World War II resistance figure and a wonderfully weak Belgian archaeologist whose public posture is straight scoutmaster but whose whitewash of honor is quickly scraped off by the father of the jilted bride. This American father’s own commercialism of soul gives him an unerring insight into who can be bought, or better, scared and then bought for less. Curiously, the protagonist (the young American ex-track athlete) has for his tragic flaw a very 2000s weakness: he has been all his life so passive that he scarcely thinks. I have not seen this particular (and very common) weakness made anything of in recent American fiction. Janey Bennett gets it right and keeps the pace up, too.
In addition to the host of
present-day characters, we keep glimpsing in the wings how people behaved
during the German Occupation over a half-century ago. Those old Cretan
resistance people play a surprising last card in the personal lives of not only
the villagers but of their young truth-seeking priest and the protagonist—who
grows into a serious man during the novel’s three-quarters of a year.
What gives The Pale Surface of Things some of its beauty is that the author likes problems of character and glorious and repulsive actions as well as she loves the land of Crete. I mention this because so many novels in English about places abroad (like Crete) are lightweight make-plots shined up with meaningless violence. My feeling is that this book will sell as well as the run of travel novels to readers hunting through airport gift shops and will prove ten times more engrossing.
A quality in books that doesn’t get weighed in our criticisms enough, I think, is whether or not the characters are doing or trying to do anything that really matters. Bennett’s people are awfully good in this respect. They are not just vivid. They’re engaging. Except for the two genuine villains, everyone has a kind of spirited liking of life. They are all trying to make something meaningful out of their lives. The little boy of the book is caught up in trying to save the adults he loves from harming one another. The young American wants to stop being a slob. The Belgian archaeologist may have been the weak son of a strident mother, but now he would like to get over being an incompetent scholar and passing liar. The priest wants to waken, in his parish, some admiration for serious virtue. A pleasant rough-and-tumble kindness pervades these people’s stories. The minor characters make terrible decisions, the way Dickens’s ghastly minor characters make terrible decisions. I like this author’s humor. She takes the time to tell us that the little wife of the avarice-ridden American entrepreneur weeps plentifully into the breakfast tray of their hotel room. The author gets the little things right.
Bennett is an absolute natural as a story teller. Of course travelers to Greece or Crete, actually winter and summer travelers to anywhere, will love the unmistakable settings, the food, the animals, the haunting presence of an ancient past—all that richness—but what makes this story get hold of you is how summoning its characters are. It’s actually a gorgeous surprise, how summoning they are, the way Willa Cather’s characters are summoning: we find ourselves reading about a bunch of locals somewhere, in Nebraska or Crete, and suddenly we feel as if all of us are steeped in something quite wonderful together.