#BookReview A Lifetime of Men by Ciahnan Darrell

A Lifetime of MenAbout the Book

Tolan has always let her mother have one secret – how she got that scar on her face – playing along with her mother’s game of inventing outlandish tales to explain the wound away. But when she finds a manuscript on her mother’s computer that promises to reveal the true story, Tolan only hesitates for a moment before curiosity compels her to read on.

She’s hoping for answers but instead she finds more mysteries tucked away in her mother’s past. Her mother appears to be associated with Bo, a feisty photojournalist who flies to Cuba in pursuit of a story and becomes embedded with Castro’s rebels, but Tolan can’t quite work out their connection.

She’s more clear about the relationship between her mother and Michael, a man twelve years her senior. They bond over their shared outcast status, and their friendship quickly becomes intimate, but the relationship antagonizes the self-appointed moral watchdogs in their small town, who start to convert their threats into action. Tolan is pretty sure that Michael is her father. Her mother told her he died years ago, but the book suggests their story had a different ending.

Almost overnight, everything Tolan thought she knew about herself and her family has changed. She wants answers, but to find them, she risks destroying her closest relationships.

Format: Paperback (348 pages)           Publisher: Propertius Press
Publication date: 6th September 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

A Lifetime of Men has a complex structure, more complicated than just a story within a story. The book moves frequently between a number of story lines and time periods, with the transitions not always being entirely obvious. Sometimes the reader learns the story as if reading it directly from the manuscript Tolan finds on her mother’s computer – as if reading it over Tolan’s shoulder, as it were. At other times, Tolan summarises or comments on the sections she’s just read, often discussing them with her friend, Tori.

I thought Bo was a fascinating character. Although enthralled by her childhood hunting trips in the woods with her father, she also becomes aware of his violent nature.  Bo’s mother explains: “It’s our lot, Bo, what we’re meant to do, what we’re given.”. “What we are given?” queries Bo. “A lifetime of men” replies her sister, Ruby.  This early experience colours much of Bo’s attitude to relationships, including her on/off relationship with Parker, for whom I developed some sympathy. To me, he seemed only ever to have Bo’s best interests at heart, never demonstrating any intention to constrain her independence in the way she fears. I was disappointed when Bo and Parker disappeared largely from the story until the very end of the book.

I was also sorry the ten years Bo spends in Cuba as a photojournalist is glossed over in a few sentences. What the reader does get is descriptions – thankfully brief – of some of the atrocities Bo witnesses whilst there which, I’ll be honest, I found quite disturbing to read. Tolan has a similar reaction; in fact, even more so. Unsure if her mother’s manuscript is fact or fiction, she’s distressed to think her mother could imagine such graphic scenes of violence. I found myself agreeing with Tolan when she asks herself, “Why would someone want to put those horrible images in people’s heads?”.

It was interesting how, as the bond between Tolan and Tori develops, Tolan starts to wonder about parallels between their families’ potential reaction to the nature of their relationship and the way the community reacted to the relationship between Tolan’s mother Sarah and the much older Michael so many years before. Frustrated that the sections of her mother’s manuscript that will provide the answers she seeks are missing, Tolan sets out herself to gather the necessary pieces of the jigsaw, ultimately revealing not only the truth of her parentage but the ‘lifetime of men’ who have helped her along the way.

I received a digital review copy of A Lifetime of Men courtesy of the author and Random Things Tours.

In three words: Intense, multi-layered, emotional

Try something similar: The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

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Ciahnan DarrellAbout the Author

A writer and a scholar, Ciahnan Darrell holds Masters degrees from the University of Chicago and Stony Brook University, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University at Buffalo. He is a contributing editor at Marginalia, where he has written on issues of race in America through articles on James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. His short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, most recently in The Columbia Review, and his story ‘What Remains’ was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first novel, A Lifetime of Men, was released by Propertius Press in the fall of 2020. In addition to writing, Ciahnan is a husband, a father, a cook, an oenophile, a matero, a gym-goer, and a runner. He splits his time between Pennsylvania and Maine, where his family has resided for more than a century. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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