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Monday, September 17, 2007

Book Disucssion: Icebergs by Rebecca Johns

In anticipation of Rebbecca Johns' visit to the Berwyn Public Library, my book group discussed her debut novel Icebergs today. Icebergs begins in the Winter 1944 with a spectacular plane crash of a Canadian, WWII bomber into the wilderness of Newfoundland. Only two members of the crew survive the crash, and only one of them lives to be rescued days later. What follows is the story of the 2 families of these survivors over three generations, an emigration to Chicago, and a life time of tragedies and triumphs.

Icebergs is told from multiple points of view and interweaves multiple storylines. At first glance, what appears to be a standard literary fiction with a domestic and/or family saga angle, Icebergs becomes much more. The characters are complex and fully realised, the story moves much faster than you expect, without sacrificing the story. Also, because you are following a few main characters over a long time span, the different sections have a short story feel.

Our discussion covered many topics. First, the choppy style was noted. The book takes place just before three major historical "shifts:" 1944 (just before the end of WWII), 1967 (just before the upheavals of the late 60s/early 70s), and just before the turn of the millennium. Each section feels like its own story, and each is told through different characters eyes. Even when one character is driving the story, s/he is constantly moving from present day to recollections of the past. Although this choppy style was hard for most of the group to get used to, we all agreed that it helped make the story seem more realistic. In real life, things do not always happen in a linear fashion.

Which leads to the next major discussion point, one of the best things Johns did with this novel is to capture families as they truly are. The struggles of overcoming the past, the conflict between siblings, the tortured relationship of Caroline and her mother, and the intertwining of life and history are all accurately and realistically portrayed.

We then moved onto a discussion of the title. Although actual icebergs are alluded to in the opening section of the novel, this idea of the majority of something being hidden under the surface, of only seeing 10% of something too massive to comprehend, speaks loudly to many of the characters and relationships within this well constructed novel.

Well constructed is an important term here. As we discussed, we were all happy to keep finding the repetition of so many themes and events. For example, there is the repetition of 2 wars for which there are 2 men where only 1 survives. There is also the story of 2 women, in 2 different generations who have cheating fathers. This list could go on and on, and in our discussion, it did. Johns creates another major theme of the novel with this repetition: the inevitability of generations repeating the mistakes of their forefathers.

This last theme is important to note, in terms of our discussion. Although we all noticed bits and pieces as we read, it was the act of coming together to discuss this book that enhanced our enjoyment of this important aspect. As we all rattled off these repetitions, I was thinking, "this is why we discuss books." Without the group discussion, we all would have lost out on the larger picture which Johns so consciously constructed. We all helped each other enjoy this book that much more.

In terms of readalikes, readers who enjoy the short stories of Canadian, Alice Munro (especially this one) and her skill at delving into the stories found within the complicated relationships among people, would find the detailed relationships among the two families of Icebergs compelling. The works of perennial, best-selling, literary fiction author, Anne Tyler have a similar feel to Icebergs. Try Digging to America in which two families, both adopting infant girls from Korea, become intertwined by fate. For a male author, fans of John Irving could try Icebergs. He is also well known for his fully realized characters and engaging storylines usually involving families and difficult decisions, all factors which come into play in Icebergs.

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