Stranger by David Bergen: Crossing the North/South divide

Cover image 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.

12 thoughts on “Stranger by David Bergen: Crossing the North/South divide”

  1. The Giller Prize is one that I keep meaning to explore with the reading group that reads from award shortlists. I wonder how easy it would be to source those books in the UK. I must do some research. Thank you for reminding me about it.

    1. I think if you’re happy to use Kindle, you’ll be fine. I’m frequently tempted by Naomi’s reviews at Consumed by Ink (she’s one of the bloggers who shadows the prize) but the books aren’t so easy to track down if you’re either wedded to paper or want to avoid Amazon, both of which apply to me.

      1. Actually a lot of the group do use Kindle because they are elderly and appreciate the ability to increase the print size. That’s one advantage of ebooks which isn’t often spoken about but it has made a tremendous difference to a lot of my friends.

  2. I vividly remember the afternoon I started to read this, having thought it was going to be a dabbling sort of thing, then being preoccupied the entire time I was working until I could pick it up again on the commute home and finish it as soon as possible. It was relentlessness searching and when I caught hold of the layers in the storytelling I loved it even more. I’ve also enjoyed The Matters of Morris (which, again, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy) and The Age of Hope (which was quietly wonderful). Did you enjoy it enough to read another of his?

    1. It did, providing I can get my hands on them here in the UK without resorting to Amazon! I particuarly like the sound of ‘quietly wonderful’ I found Stranger absolutely gripping. Bergen neatly avoided any melodrama by keeping his writing clean, crisp and uncluttered.

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