Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Gendarme


Why do you pick up a book? What makes that book alluring as opposed to the one next to it? Everyone has their sucker points. I'm a sucker for: maps, unique type styles, fabrics, patterns, shoes with no feet in them (But never, never ever feet with no shoes on them!), dishes, tea kettles and tea pots, partially revealed figures and the just plain pretty. Since I buy lots of books there must be an awful lot of covers that peak my interest. Of course you may judge a book worthy of picking up by it's cover but you don't always buy it. I did touch and then buy The Gendarme by first time author Mark Mustian. I had not heard anything about this novel prior to seeing it displayed in an independent bookstore but the cover is so striking (shades of the National Geographic Afghan girl) and so simple that I was compelled to grab it and have a look. If my local chain store was stocking this title at all it was not in one of the many piles of books nor was it faced out in the new fiction section so it did not get my attention.

The gendarme is Emmett Conn. Emmett is a World War I vet near the end of his life. Although he's suffered from memory problems since being injured during the war that prevent him from remembering much of that experience and his life before it, the war has defined his life. Now strange dreams that may or may not be hidden memories from that time are intruding on his life. In these dreams his status as a soldier is confused. He is a gendarme escorting Armenians out of Turkey. He is 'Ahmet Kahn' and he is desperately in love with a young refugee named Araxie. In Emmett's 'real' life his relationships with his grown daughter and grandson are typically complicated and in need of repair. To heal, understand and forgive himself for what may have been his participation in the Armenian Genocide, Emmett must extract the truth of his life from within these illusive and disturbing memories and dreams.

This was an excellent novel. The different periods were brought off beautifully. It was appealing to my love of historical fiction and the contemporary setting was successful as well and so did not suffer by comparison. This is not a history of the genocide but the elements of it that are incorporated into the plot are written with enough authority to capture the level of horrors of that experience. Mustian also writes movingly and believably about Emmett's two lives. The book is told in the first person so our travels with Emmett could very easily have become a tiresome litany of I, I, I and that does not happen. Emmett stays a provocative character throughout the book. Not every character is as fully realized as Emmett and Araxie are but the strength of your interest in the two of them makes up for that lack. Good job Mark Mustian!

Congrats to the wily cover designer of The Gendarme. You tempted me with your mad skills (or mad skillets as my niece says) and it paid off big. And. By the way, how much do you love the word gendarme anyway? Don't you want to keep saying it? Gendarme. Great title choice. That makes The Gendarme a triple threat: terrific novel, gorgeous cover and wonderful title.


P.S. That cover art reminded me of another recent triple threat novel, The Heretic's Daughter. Look here my friend. They are practically twins.

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