I was attracted to David Bergen’s Stranger for two reasons: firstly, its premise and secondly by the author’s previous winning of the Scotiabank Giller Prize which I’ve found to be a very reliable indicator, much more so than the Man Booker. Bergen’s novel explores themes of entitlement and deprivation through a young Guatemalan woman left pregnant by her American lover who returns to the States after a devastating accident.
İso works as a ‘keeper’ at a fertility clinic, tending rich but desperate women who come to take the waters credited with helping the founder’s wife conceive. She listens to their confidences, their hopes and fears, often forming an intimate bond with them which dissolves once they leave. She’s in love with Eric, one of the clinic’s wealthy but apparently liberal doctors, who cuts a glamorous figure astride his motorbike. When Eric’s wife arrives for treatment, the carefully cultivated ambiguity of his marital status falls into question. Their affair resumes after Susan leaves, coming to an abrupt end when Eric returns to the States after an accident leaving İso alone with her pregnancy. Shortly after İso gives birth, her daughter is abducted and taken to the States. What ensues is the story of İso’s determined journey to retrieve her stolen child, a quest fraught with danger and difficulty.
In less capable hands İso’s story might have become a little trite, perhaps over sentimentalised, but Bergen deftly avoids that. It’s a novel with a sharp political sensibility, an exploration of Northern entitlement and Southern deprivation delivered simply, never with a heavy hand. İso’s character is sharply drawn and believable. Bergen unfolds her story in clear, direct language, heightening the tension and constant danger of her journey with short, unadorned sentences. The kindness of strangers balances the malevolence she faces both north and south of the US border but her wariness is rarely put to rest. Stranger is an easy, absorbing read – I finished it in an afternoon – but it has some serious points to make about entitlement, wealth and poverty, and makes them well. It put me in mind of Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed which explored similar North/South territory but of the two, Bergen’s is much the better book.