A Kinder, Gentler Review of Norm Rush's Subtle Bodies

The September 26, 2013, issue of The New York Review of Books has a long review of Subtle Bodies by Norm Rush60926907 (Botswana 1978-83 ) written by Francine Prose. Prose goes back over Rush’s literary history, his three novels that are set in Botswana, written in the years after Norm and his wife, Elsa, were co-directors in South Africa and then she focuses on where Rush is today. This novel is not set in Botswana. Published by Knopf this month, Subtle Bodies, takes place in New York’s Hudson Valley where Norm and Elsa have lived since (and before) the Peace Corps in Africa.

Unlike Michiko Kakutani’s The New York Times review (September 17, 2013), novelist and critic Francine Prose finds much to appreciate in Norm’s new book.

In her review, Prose makes the point that Rush writes novels for adults….”Rush endows his fictional creations with so much intelligence, complexity, and depth that we remain genuinely interested in their conversation; partly because he writes so well and is so often funny; and partly because he baits enough narrative hooks-What dark secret will be revealed about the absent host? Will the bewitching former girlfriend reappear and ruin everything?-to draw us through the book without our feeling encumbered by the weight of what his characters are saying and thinking.”

Francine Prose, the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard, who has a novel herself coming out this spring, believes  Rush has made the transition in settings. “How smoothly Rush has imported his concerns from one continent to another, how deftly he convinces us that the people watching the rain fall in Woodstock and their counterparts in arid Botswana are pondering the same questions. In the Kalahari and the Catskills, they mull over the responsibilities and rewards of activism, the pleasures and demands of love, sex, family, friendship. They want to live moral, reasonably happy lives. But given each individual’s unstable chemistry of virtues and flaws, and their collective penchant for getting everything wrong, acting with simple decency poses a daunting challenge.”

Also, earlier this week on the New Yorker website, Rachel Arons writes of Rush, “(He) has a genius for depicting language that grows out of sustained romantic partnership-what the unnamed narrator-protagonist of Mating called an “idioverse,” a private patois made up of shared references and sayings, occasional neologisms, and common words that have taken on new meanings. Rush’s protagonists tend to speak to each other at length, and with formidable intelligence and eloquence, but it’s their linguistic inventiveness that is key to Rush’s remarkably convincing portrayals of enduring romantic love. As Rush, whose marriage to Elsa is famously strong and devoted, put it in a Paris Review interview with Joshua Pashman, “Extraordinary language is sometimes just what happens between two people living closely over many years.”

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