No Book but the World

by Leah Hager Cohen

(Riverhead, $27.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Leah Hager Cohen has published 10 books, five each of fiction and nonfiction. Her novels include The Grief of Others, which was nominated for several literary prizes and named a notable or best book of the year by major newspapers. Her nonfiction includes Train Go Sorry and I Don’t Know: In Praise Of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t). A professor of Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, she also teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University, and regularly writes for the New York Times Book Review. In addition, she writes the blog about death, dying and living, called Love As a Found Object, which she began when her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

What is this book about?

A damaged boy who grows up to be an odd adult and might have committed a serious crime; the sister who loves him but who may have abused him when they were children; a heinous murder and a tale about love, regrets, guilt and innocence: this is a psychological thriller that explores an unconventional family’s history. Ava tells the story as she tries to determine if her beloved brother Fred actually did the crime –  kidnapping and killing a little boy – with which he has been charged. Trying to piece it all together, she is thrown back into memories – perhaps not so reliable – of growing up on the grounds of an experimental “free school” with a brother who may be autistic  and parents whose educational theories may have been elegant, but not helpful in raising their atypical children. Ava believes that only she can solve this mystery and prove her brother innocent. “No Book but the World” is the story of her quest.

Why you’ll like it:

Hager Cohen is skilled at portraying unusual people caught up in trying circumstances, a valuable and necessary ability for an author of books of this kind. This book has elements of the genres of mystery novels and psychological thrillers, but it is most powerful as a story of family conflicts and the meaning of innocence. Ava may not be the most reliable of narrators, but her willingness to probe her memories to ascertain how the quirks and questionable assumptions of her childhood have contributed to her brother’s current tribulations will engross readers.

What others are saying:

“Ava and Fred, the adult siblings at the heart of Cohen’s (The Grief of Others, 2011) new novel, have been shaped by their unusual upbringing. The children of the founder of a now-defunct experimental school and his much younger wife, they have never quite fit in. Ava is withdrawn and reserved, while Fred, an odd, developmentally disabled child, grew into a man who lives on the fringes of society. When Fred is accused of murdering a 12-year-old boy, Ava tries to piece together what happened and ascertain whether Fred is innocent. Much of the story takes place in the past, peeling back the layers of Ava’s and Fred’s childhoods: their friendship with free spirit Kitty, whose older brother Dennis becomes Ava’s husband, and the fantasy world they created in the woods. Fred’s otherness never falls away, and as an adult, Ava distanced herself from him and her past in an attempt to live a so-called normal life. Cohen offers a complex, tragic examination of how difficult it can be to ever truly know and understand another person,” says Booklist.

The New York Times Book Review says: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But in fiction it can take on a whole new power—blunderingly obvious or brightly illuminating, depending on how imaginatively it’s applied. Rare is the contemporary novel that doesn’t set out, at least in part, to examine the effects of past behavior on present outcomes. While this can lead to pungent and suspenseful storytelling, it requires a delicate balance, keeping the reader engaged in the narrative momentum of an unknown future that’s already in the past. In her perceptive, empathetic and often emotionally gripping new novel, Leah Hager Cohen…has managed the trick very deftly…No Book but the World has many clear strengths, not least the heart-wrenching picture Cohen paints of Fred, both in childhood and in later life. Readers who grew up before the language of therapy became commonplace are likely to have known children like these—mysteriously disengaged, fretted over by their parents, irritating to their siblings.”

Says Publishers Weekly:  Cohen’s fifth novel following The Grief of Others, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize, makes a strong addition to the growing field of novels involving revolutionary parenting philosophies. Ava Robbins looks back, after her parents’ deaths, on the permissive upbringing that she and her brother, Freddy, received, based on the ideals of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She comments, “Much later, in college, when my disillusionment with my father was at its most excruciating… I discovered that the great philosopher, my father’s idol and model, had deposited his own five children in a foundling hospital.” Ava finds her way through the enormous freedom she is given, but Freddy runs greater risks, getting into fights during a brief period at public school and accepting dangerous dares from his friends. Ava realizes Freddy is troubled and possibly autistic, but her parents refuse to acknowledge the fact. In adulthood, following the death of her parents, Ava must decide whether she can or should bring Fred back into her life. Occasionally, Cohen strains to create more mystery than is really needed, but her story’s hard and engaging central questions don’t require suspense to capture the reader.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “A brother and sister with unconventional childhoods grow into adulthood, with predictably quirky results. Ava and Fred Robbins grow up under the tutelage of their parents, June and Neel, the latter of whom had established an experimental school in upstate New York in the late 1940s. Neel is 20 years older than his wife, and they both believe in a Rousseau-ian ideal of freedom for their children as well as for the students in their school. (In fact, the title of the novel comes directly out of a quotation from Emile, Rousseau’s novel of education.) As a consequence, both Ava and Fred grow up making major choices about their own upbringings. As a child, Ava’s best friend is Kitty, whose older brother Dennis becomes enamored of Ava when she’s a coltish 14-year-old, and years later they marry. Ava’s placid domestic life is severely disrupted when she finds out that Fred has been arrested on several charges involving the disappearance and death of a 12-year-old boy named James Ferebee, whose body was recently found. Counsel for Fred is an overworked and underexperienced public defender who can scarcely be bothered with the details of the case, including finding time to visit his client in jail and get his side of the story. Growing up, Fred had always been strange and alienating, exhibiting symptoms of Asperger’s or perhaps something further on the autism spectrum, though Ava can hardly imagine him as a killer. Through substantial flashbacks to their childhoods, adolescences and early adult lives, Ava is always looking to put the family narrative into some kind of meaningful whole, though Fred’s arrest and incarceration severely challenge this attempt to find coherence. Cohen is finely attuned to family dynamics here, both the quiet inner workings of Ava’s successful marriage and her genuine bewilderment about Fred’s fall from grace.”

Novelist Sue Miller, writing in The Boston Globe, says “. . . As information comes to Ava about Freddy’s crime — he’s accused of kidnapping a young boy from the town and taking him into a nearby woods where his bruised, near-naked body is found — Ava keeps returning to her memories of the game she played with Freddy in their woods, a game in which, she suggests to us over and over, something perverse, something dark and shocking was done to him. “I touched you anyway, and you let me . . . I could guide you into the woods . . . Dress you in silks. Cover your eyes. Prick your finger. But I never did that: prick your finger . . . That is one thing we never did.” . . . The resolution of these multiple and often titillating story strands involves some reversals — it turns out there were many things Ava never did to Freddy — and some narrative legerdemain worthy of Ian McEwan. But the more satisfying resolution for Ava comes through the stories she’s been recording in her journal: about Freddy, about herself, about the people who’ve cared for them and loved them, well and less well. And it’s the well-earned discovery about how that storytelling itself has changed her thinking, her feeling about everything in her life, much more than the sometimes artificially suspenseful plot, that resonates most deeply with the reader.”

When is it available?

This book is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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