Today on "Books that have been sitting on desk awaiting review for too long" we have Mark T. Mustian's novel, The Gendarme. It also falls into the category of "books I meant to review nearer the release date but failed at mightily." You could say that this is an excercise in measuring the strength of my long term memory, but for our purposes, I think we'll just call it a book review. ;-)
Emmett Conn is 92 years old, or so he thinks. After suffering a head injury during World War I, most of his prior memory was erased. Since then, he fell in love with a nurse who took a special interest in him, emigrated to her home country, and lived out his days working as a plumber and doing his very best to live the American dream and pass it on to his two daughters. Even as he has aged, he has stayed in remarkably good health, that is, until he begins to have seizures which reveal he has a brain tumor. Even more disconcerting, however, are his incredibly detailed dreams, dreams of a past that he's sure could not even be possible. He dreams of a time when his name was not Emmett, but Ahmet Khan, and he was serving as a gendarme escorting captive Armenians out of Turkey. He dreams of an Armenian girl who intoxicates him with her beauty and her mismatched eyes. What he has known about himself for decades tells him that these dreams can't be true, but the dreams are too real to deny.
Mustian expertly weaves together the two narratives, one the current life and the remembered times of Emmett Conn, the other the strikingly realistic dreams of the terrible journey out of Turkey with a band of suffering refugees riddled with merciless cruelty and an unexpected and forbidden love. The present day narration is a seemingly spot-on depiction of an aging widower. He recalls a life he considers to be well-lived, full of hard work and family. He wonders how he failed to pass on his hard-won life and rigid values to his two daughters who seem to care about him but fail to visit and seem all too willing to concede his care to strangers. He even makes wry, almost laugh out loud funny observations about his dearly departed wife's relatives, really the only relatives he himself has left.
The other narration fleshes out the details of an incident that is still a taboo topic for many Turks. It effectively transports us to a different time and a different place. It reveals the raw cruelty and the terrible suffering inflicted by the gendarmes on their captive refugees. At the same time, though, Mustian manages to put a very human face on a tragedy using a present-day narrator we have come to like who is seeing this all anew, but in a way that feels distinctly familiar. Emmett's disbelief and regret at the actions of his former self, Ahmet, casts the events in an atypical and disconcertingly sympathetic light as we even watch Ahmet change as he falls in love with this unusual girl that he never got the chance to apologize to.
The Gendarme is a brave and haunting portrait of yet another wartime tragedy that many would rather see pushed under the rug, but it is also a story of love that transcends even the worst circumstances. The Gendarme is a powerful book that definitely makes Mustian an author to watch.
(I got my ARC of The Gendarme at Book Expo America)