Book Review of “Moonglow by Michael Chabon.
Readers of Michael Chabon’s novels know that he has a wonderful way of mixing reality and fiction, to the extent that the lines can feel very blurred. I noticed this in his “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which won him the Pulitzer. Although that novel, (which I really should review someday) focuses on the rise of superhero comic books, with an aside into the realm of magical realism, this book takes on a much more personal form. Here, Chabon takes the last 10 days of his grandfather’s life (well, step-grandfather, to be precise) and uses the recounting of the events of this man’s life in order to create a fictional biography, or memoir. In this way, Chabon not only makes protagonists out of real-life relatives, but he also places himself and other family members into the cast of characters.
Apparently, Chabon’s (step) grandfather led a fascinating life. As an engineer, he was fascinated with rocketry, and that led to his fascination with the space program. Before this, during WW2, he was one of the people assigned to hunt down the scientists working for the Nazis to bring them back to the US. His wife, Chabon’s (biological) grandmother hid from the Nazis in a convent, where she gave birth to Chabon’s mother (out of wedlock). The effect this had on her mental health ended up being both a point of attraction and frustration throughout their lives together. It also seems that without him, Chabon’s mother might have had a worse childhood than she had (which was nowhere near ideal, and in some cases, appalling).
Bringing all of this together into something that was this entertaining seems practically impossible. However, Chabon’s precision balancing the facts and history with the human elements of the characters kept this from feeling morbid or depressing. At the same time, Chabon carefully injected humor and compassion into the imaginary events and conversations, without ever trivializing anything or anyone involved. In this way, Chabon was able to blur the lines between imagination and reality, thereby bringing the whole story to life. This reminded me of how historical events can feel more real when dramatized, docu-drama style.
That Chabon used his own family members in this fashion also struck me as terribly brave. Not just because of how his family may or may not have reacted to this book, but because sometimes authors can actually get too close to their own characters. If this happens, we easily recognize this by their including too much detail, or finding ways to stick things in which are superfluous or irrelevant. That can often manifest with meandering texts of inexplicable tangents that flow from one off topic subject to another, ad tedium (a la some of John Irving’s more recent novels). Chabon comes dangerously close to crossing this line (for example, with the whole bit about trying to hunt down a cat-killing boa constrictor, or all the perfectly scaled models he builds of rockets and spacecrafts), but thankfully succeeds in holding himself back, for the most part. What we have here is a gathering of accounts that feel loving, human and realistic, but somehow still a thing of fiction.
In his introduction, Chabon states that he wrote this novel as a sort of rebellion against the secrets his family kept, and which he felt were detrimental to them all. After his saying this, it was very impressive how Chabon leads us to his climactic twist dealing his family’s ultimate secret, and potentially the most damaging one of all. What I loved was that Chabon slips this in with an “ah-ha” moment, instead of beating us on the head with it. That allowed him use this to just color everything he’s written before then faintly, leaving you with questions that compel you to read to the close of the book. I would say more about this, but that might lead to spoilers, so just trust me on this – it will raise eyebrows. In short, I found this a praiseworthy novel, that well deserves (at least most of) the accolades it is already getting. I found it worthy of a strong four and a half stars out of five.
“Moonglow” by Michael Chabon published by Harper Collins, released November 22, 2016 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the website eBooks.com, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or used from Better World Books (promoting literacy and libraries), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.