Whether committed through ignorance, misunderstanding, or pride, some actions have unanticipated and unpleasant effects. The following titles explore how characters deal with those consequences—or avoid them—and the larger ramifications of their choices.
Ian McEwan sets his sexually charged and introspective novel Atonement (Anchor. 2003. ISBN 9780385721790. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781400075553) at the outbreak of World War II. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis inadvertently witnesses a secret liaison between her elder sister and the gardener’s son. Old enough to recognize what she sees but not yet mature enough to comprehend her sister’s motives or the possible outcome of her own subsequent actions, Briony unintentionally instigates a chain of events that tears her family apart. Briony finds herself thrust into the chaos of a sundered household and the war and must reconcile her lack of knowledge of sexuality with the consequences of her deeds while in the midst of a country in turmoil.
Hubris and penance walk hand in hand in Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s stylish fantasy The Scar (Tor. 2012. ISBN 9780765367907. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781429996624). Egert is the handsome and swaggering captain of the guard—no man can match him in battle. When a woman spurns his advances in favor of her fiancé, a puny scholar, Egert is publicly humiliated. To save face, Egert slays the suitor after a cruel cat and mouse display. A mysterious old man witnesses the altercation and challenges Egert to a duel. Much to Egert’s surprise, the old man easily wins and curses him with timidity. Now bearing a disfiguring scar and plagued by unrelenting cowardice, Egert flees the city and must try to lift the curse or live with his misdeeds.
Stephen R. Donaldson’s adventure series “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” begins with Lord Foul’s Bane (Del Rey. 1997. ISBN 9780345418432. pap. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780307818652) and is not for the faint of heart. The bitter and morally bankrupt Thomas slips into a coma, entering a foreign world. Believing himself to be merely hallucinating, he violently fulfills his basest desires with a complete disregard for the people he encounters. Soon, Thomas realizes that this new realm may be more reality than fantasy and that he is unable to escape his sleep-induced prison. Faced with the world’s imminent destruction, Thomas is forced to accept his culpability and attempt to make reparations. He reluctantly sets out to take down the tyrannical Lord Foul, a menacing ruler reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sauron.
Theoretical physicist and communist sympathizer J. Robert Oppenheimer is well known as the father of the atomic bomb and leader of the infamous Manhattan Project. Initially hailed as a hero after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer soon found himself vilified by the terrified American public. His work and professional reputation were discredited owing to Cold War politics. Thorough and well researched, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Vintage. 2006. ISBN 9780375726262. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780307424730), by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, details the scientist’s life, work, and repentance in mid-20th-century America.
In Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees (Touchstone. 2002. ISBN 9780743237185. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781451641653), James Piper and his Lebanese child bride raise their daughters on the stormy coast of Cape Breton, in a perverse, guarded atmosphere devoid of affection. The Piper sisters try to develop their own unspoken rules for managing a family, sustained by willful ignorance and half-truths, but their unhealthy home proves to be a wedge between them. Spanning multiple generations, this dark, sweeping saga follows the Pipers from their life in Nova Scotia to the battlefields of World War I to the roaring nightlife of New York City as each comes to terms with her relationships and herself. Secrets, forbidden love, and guilt govern their lives, but where sin is present, so, too, is a chance for redemption.
In Junot Díaz’s dynamic collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead. 2013. ISBN 9781594487361. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9781594631771. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101596951), streetwise Dominican American Yunior recklessly searches for love, usually at the expense of his current romantic entanglement. Despite encountering several uniquely fantastic women, he rarely stays with them for long, and his Sisyphean quest for passion leaves him lonely and confused. Interspersed among his exploits are the stories of other Dominican Americans’ connections with loved ones and the community. Díaz explores with firecracker prose and humor the difficulties of learning and repenting.
Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net