Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Six top novels with mysterious protagonists

Christopher Swann is a novelist and high school English teacher. A graduate of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, he earned his Ph.D. in creative writing from Georgia State University. He has been a Townsend Prize finalist, longlisted for the Southern Book Prize, and twice been a finalist for a Georgia Author of the Year award. He lives with his wife and two sons in Atlanta, where he is the English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.

Swann's new novel is A Fire in the Night.

At CrimeReads he tagged six great novels with "narrators and protagonists who deliberately keep secrets from us, or whose pasts are mysteries that loom over the story and are only revealed a piece at a time." One title on the list:
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan (1999)

Set in the tiny town of Friendship, Wisconsin a few years after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying is the beautiful and harrowing story of Jacob Hansen, a Civil War veteran who is the town’s undertaker, constable, and pastor. He lives with his wife Marta and their baby daughter Amelia, a young family with a bright future. A man of faith, Jacob feels a great responsibility for the citizens of Friendship. He also speaks in the second person, a narrative choice that increases our empathy for Jacob and also thrusts us with startling and uncomfortable immediacy into Jacob’s mind—“You don’t like to be around horses anymore. It’s understandable, having had to eat them during the siege, to burrow into their warm, dead guts for cover, but you don’t talk about that, or only to Marta, who’d never let it slip.” Such revelatory moments are precursors to a sinister pair of events: a mysterious and fatal plague that spreads quickly through the town, and a wildfire that is moving inexorably toward Friendship, turning the idyllic prairie into a hellish landscape of flames and ash. In his struggle to save Friendship, Jacob’s faith, love for his family, and sense of duty are all tested beyond the breaking point. Watching a good man become slowly unhinged is tragic, but the second-person narration that O’Nan employs adds to the horror, and to our desperate hope that Jacob will survive. At just under two hundred pages, written in spare but gorgeous prose, A Prayer for the Dying is a powerful and haunting narrative about faith, guilt, and grief.
Read about the other entries on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue