This is not the kind of book that would normally make it onto my radar, but when Sherman Alexie chose it for the WSJ Bookclub, saying "I don’t think a book by another man has ever made me cry as much…", I thought I'd check it out. I'm glad I did.
Briefly, Achilles and Troy are the African-American adopted sons of a white couple from Maryland. Their father died while they were in transit, travelling home from their second tour in Afghanistan (Goddamnistan), so they are surprised to arrive home and find the funeral about to take place. He had always wanted the boys to have the opportunity to trace their birth-parents, so their mother acts upon those wishes, giving each of the brothers a blue envelope after the funeral. Achilles adamantly rejects his, while Troy is a bit more open to the idea. The next morning, Troy has disappeared. After a few days Achilles goes in search of his brother - and that is the backbone of the story; Achilles' odyssey in search of his brother. What the story is about is race and identity.
"racism is the bus that runs us over, every day, and while maybe only the racists are driving, every white is along for the ride"
There's some pretty powerful stuff in there, from descriptions of what went on in Afghanistan, to what it was like in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"The little red duplex was tagged with the spray paint circle and cross and the number three, indicating that three bodies were found."
"Bose was red in the face, stuttering, trying to explain the feeling of witnessing destruction on a scale usually reserved for wartime."
"...you know damn well if this were Malibu or Key West or Galveston, they would have evacuated these people in a heartbeat. It's some dark s*** when your country lets you sit out on a highway in hundred-degree weather and die just because you're black and poor."
But overall, it didn't have the emotional impact for me that it did for Sherman Alexie. At least not until the very end when I wept through the final chapter or two. I know this is because I am not male or brown and I don't have any direct experience or connections with war or the military, so I'm not discounting it at all. What I do know about is being part of a family, so that's the bit at the end that tugged on my emotions.
Sometimes I felt a bit lost in the story, and strangely, this is one of the things that I admired about the book. Achilles is a different kind of 'unreliable narrator'. He lies to and hides the truth from the other characters, but not from us, the readers. Still, I sometimes found it difficult to decide what was true and what was not. Ines, the love interest, accuses him: "Your grieving voice sounds exactly like your lying voice." (She's onto him by this point...)
On top of that there was the author's tendency to go a bit too far with the 'show, don't tell' rule. A good example was where someone has died and then we are at the funeral - but hang on! - this funeral is for someone else altogether!!!! (And it took me paaaaaages to work this out!)
Overall, I liked it. I liked the writing, and I liked the way the author let me take the story the way I wanted to.