Saturday, November 28, 2009

'The Garden of Last Days' Examines Evil Within

It took me a week to read Andre Dubus III's latest novel, The Garden of Last Days. For me, this is a lot of time to invest in one book -- normally I read two or three in that time frame. I found that The Garden of Last Days required my complete attention. It was a complex novel, full of side plots and deep characterizations. Was it worth the 500+ pages and the week it took to complete? While some reviews I have read would differ, I would say it was. It was interesting throughout its entirety, and even if some of the prose felt heavy and long, Dubus weaves a fanstastic story.

In The Garden of Last Days, Florida stripper April (stage name Spring) brings her toddler daughter to work with her after her landlady/babysitter winds up in the hospital. Also in the Puma Club that night is middle-eastern Bassam, one of the 9/11 hijackers. He has seen April before, and he pays large sums of money on this particular night to spend one-on-one time with her in the Champagne Room. As April dances for Bassam, her daughter goes missing. While the police and April's coworkers rush to find tiny Franny, other subplots abound. Dubus gives readers background information on all of the book's characters (important and not-so): April, Bassam, Lonnie the bouncer, Jean the widowed landlady, and Puma Club regular AJ, among others.

While Dubus is talented in his writing skills (for one thing, he writes each section in language that pertains to the character the section focuses on), there are too many tangents in the novel. It is difficult to remain concerned for April and her daughter while also feeling empathy for AJ's estranged wife and mother, Lonnie's broken dreams, and Jean's feelings of loss and loneliness. However, the short time period (primarily a Friday through a Monday, with some epilogue chapters several years later) heightens the sense of mystery surrounding Franny's disappearance and Bassam's plan for jihad. There were times I felt like skipping through long flashbacks to Bassam's muslim childhood or AJ's mother's memories. However, all in all, Dubus kept my attention. His characters are genuine -- you feel sympathy for them at the same time that you are cringing at their mistakes. This is not the blockbuster that House of Sand and Fog was, but it was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Dubus reading an excerpt from the novel:

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