Book review: “Running” by Cara Hoffman.

In the midst of a chaotic, violent and crime-laden world human relationships can still form, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, more often than not both. This happens in Cara Hoffman’s latest novel, Running. The story follows Birdie, Jasper and Milo, three young people called “runners”—people who board a train full of tourists, convince them to stay the Athens hotel they work for, then make sure they don’t leave once they see how decrepit the place really is while the person behind the desk takes their passports and other possessions to hold for them. As Birdie puts it in her description of the job, if any of their possessions go missing once they’ve surrendered them over, it’s their own fault. Occasionally they have run-ins with a young Irish man, Declan, who acts as a sort of leader to the group, although not because they need one but because they are too afraid of him to oppose him.

The story is told from different time periods in a non-sequential order, starting with Birdie returning to Athens and learning of Jasper’s death. It then switches back to when the two first met, and Jasper taking Birdie back to their hotel room where she meets his boyfriend Milo, an ex-boxer who is too sensitive to fit into society considering his masculine image. It alternates between these two time periods as well as Birdie as a preteen living with her uncle while she develops her obsession with fire and explosives and a time set into the future when Milo has moved to New York and is now a successful poet and teacher.

The narrative can get confusing at times and it only uses first person from Birdie’s perspective, which can get confusing and jarring if the reader isn’t paying attention. The multiple plots from different time periods in these characters’ lives do flow in a dramatic arc, which helps. The characters sometimes slip into caricatures of the type of people they are supposed to be (Milo’s student who he also lives with, a young African American woman from New York comes immediately to mind). Yet the gritty storytelling distracts from this enough that we still care what happens to each character next, such as when Birdie becomes pregnant or an Egyptian they befriended (and unbeknownst to him, betrayed) becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack that he likely didn’t commit.

There’s so many twists and turns this story takes that makes it hard to give too much away without spoiling the effect of the storytelling. Hoffman knows how to keep the reader’s interest throughout, despite the unorthodox shifts in narrative and sometimes weak characterizations. Running is definitely worth the read, but be warned that it isn’t for the faint of heart.


Book reviews: “Something Will Happen, You’ll See” by Christos Ikonomou and “In the Café of Lost Youth” by Patrick Modiano.

In the story “Mao” from the collection Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou (translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich), a character known simply as “the admiral” sums up the entire story in one of the more powerful moments from the book:

We talk and talk and the more we talk the better I understand that what binds us together are the things we’re afraid of and the things we hate. How did we end up like this? Where did all the hatred and fear come from, can you tell me? And the more time passes the worse things get.

The short stories in this collection focus on the inhabitants of a port city southwest of Athens, offering a portrait of the struggle of life during the financial crisis in Greece. People are laid off, people screw each other, some even lose their lives in rough neighborhoods. In one story, a woman saves money in a piggy bank only for her boyfriend to leave her, stealing it. In another, five men wait by a barrel fire all night to be the first in line to see the doctors at the social security offices in Nikaia. In another story a man searches for money to get food to feed his son on Easter, only to end up on a church floor, injured by a fall after helping decorate a statue of Jesus.

The conversational tone of the language with its minimal use of punctuation accentuates the bleakness of existence for many of the characters. While the stories aren’t strictly connected via their narrative, the thematic and tonal thread running through them suggests that perhaps these characters all inhabit the same world; however, in their misery they can only see the world around them, closing in more tightly as things get worse.

There’s a sliver of hope throughout the book as well. Ikonomou doesn’t offer and overt solution to the crisis, but instead shows that through people’s solidarity and resilience they can still get by. They may not be rich or very happy. But sometimes it’s enough to just be okay.

Each of the four chapters is told from a different character’s point of view in In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano (translated from the French by Chris Clarke). While in some hands this could feel like a gimmick, tying all of the threads together and culminating in an “aha” moment akin to the end of a murder mystery, Modiano instead only briefly mentions the shared interactions between all of the characters. Still, as one of the four main characters, a detective named Caisley observes

In this life that sometimes seems to be a vast, ill-defined landscape without signposts, amid all of the vanishing lines and the lost horizons, we hope to find reference points, to draw up some sort of land registry so as to shake the impression that we are navigating by chance. So we forge ties, we try to find stability in chance encounters.

The story revolves around a young woman named Jacqueline Choreau née Delanque, also known by regulars of the café Condé as “Louki.” The overall narrative backtracks each time with each of the four perspectives but the overall story arc feels smooth. Through the first we find that the regulars of Condé are all fascinated with each other. In the second we find that one non-regular that was fascinated by her is in fact a private detective, hired by her husband to find her after she left him abruptly. The third perspective is from Jacqueline herself, providing much of the backstory before the main thread starts. Finally we hear from the lover she left her husband for, all the way to the tragic end.

The book takes place in Paris in the 1950s although aside from a few place names doesn’t really feel much like a period piece. It could be the book was written so concisely that it doesn’t need to feel nostalgic, or as a non-Parisian I haven’t picked up on all of the subtleties. Either way, the book could take place any time. What is important is how we study the way in which we all have an impact on each other, even in the most minor way. The first chapter alone is written by an unnamed character that we never see again, other than briefly once, in passing. Yet it provides a glimpse at how this one woman has had a big impact on others. The few flash-forwards scenes in the book then show that even though Paris has moved on, this one woman and the café she sometimes took refuge in remains in the memories of those affected by them.