Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Adrift by E. J. Bancesco, a review by Diana Milne





About the book:

A return to his native Romania offers a unique opportunity for Boston architect Luca Leontin to come to terms with his past; instead he becomes enmeshed in the vengeful designs of a man with whom he shares a life-long history of passion for art, as well as an indelible bitterness over the love of one woman. Luca finds himself drawn to the Circe, the infamous Bucharest night club, where the illusion of erotic fulfillment could cost him his life. From a totalitarian society that crumbled in December, 1989 to a contemporary world gripped by fear of international terrorism, Adrift is a study of cultural dislocation and the ensuing alienation that triggers both our yearning to return to our origins and the hopeless need to find what is lost forever. This is a story of obsession and revenge, and, above all, the survival of love despite the corrosive action of lifelong mistrust and suspicion.

This year I have been fortunate in reading some outstanding new authors and E. J. Bancesco is up there with the best of them. Bancesco's superb and well crafted debut novel "Adrift" had me gripped from page one and I fell totally under the spell of charming, confused, suave, vulnerable, urbane and very human protagonist, Luca Leontin. By chapter three found myself more than a little  infatuated! Luca is so well written, so approachable, I also wanted to protect him, sensing that under the urbane sophistication there was the child and adolescent that never fully grew up; one who was still reaching to find his past.

A serial adulterer, Luca has left his revered wife and daughter safely in the capsule his mind has reserved for worship and travelled to his native Romania for the first time for many years. Whilst on the train journey across Europe, he begins to read one of his old notebooks, reviving memories of his first loves, Daria, Maia and Adriana  and his conflict and rivalry with artist Alecu Moldovan over the love of one of these women and a picture, two pictures, drawn by our eponymous hero.

Reading these memories causes in him a nostalgia for the days gone by, but with it a fear that they would come back - Luca is now a man of fifty, but one feels that his emotional make-up remains deeply entrenched in his adolescence.

In essence we have two stories in one book; the story of the younger Luca, told through his notebooks and memories and through reminiscences with family members and friends. The author has cleverly used his 'voice' to emphasis this, the younger Luca passages being told in a far more hesitant way as if feeling his way in an unsure world, and the older Luca is a smooth and flowing style. Whichever voice Bancesco is using, the prose is elegant, thoughtful and evocative. The descriptions of the view from the window of the train were so beautifully written, yet using such a very few words, that I can still picture each scene as it is passed.

"When he opened his eyes, it took him a moment to ascertain whether he was awake. The train was gliding without the slightest sound, dream-like. The sun had descended somewhere ahead, and the ripe, soft light left in its wake cast long shadows across the valley outside the window. In the distance, the Alps rose blue and diaphanous."

Scenes from his childhood remain as etched in my memory as in Luca's ...

"The Siret of that time still had its wild beauty; it flowed pristine and chill as a mountain river, rarely warm enough for bathing. Carp and perch hadn’t yet routed the chub, the sucker, and all those sparkling wild fish."

 
Beautiful, memorable, powerful words.
 
Depending on whether the time that is being talked about is in the past or the present, Bancesco skilfully alternates between 1st and 3rd person and this adds greatly to the sense of time and place. Another clever ploy by the author is used very effectively. Characters, for example Tante Amalia, have their own 'verbal tics' making it easy to distinguish one from another and adding to the rich fabric of the narrative and the realism of these people. 
 


Random characters drift in and out of the story, weaving their threads in the tapestry of our mind - the German man on the train, the man with an Adam's apple as big as an elbow - cameo appearances that add a richness and depth to the fabric and an indelible imprint on the reader.

Occasionally throughout the book I wondered, 'why is the author telling me this?' but however long I had to wait, there was always a reason and no random bit of information was casually dropped into the narrative without reason.

On an ill fated trip with his daughter Emma in 1990, Luca and Emma encounter a group of gypsies who utter piros - red - often and with great emphasis whilst playing cards. For ever afterwards, all either one of them had to do was to utter that word piros, for the whole of that journey and time to come alive. I loved this delightfully human observation. The whole of a Cornish holiday was evoked in my family by the words, 'Pig, pig, pig.'

Unusually for me, I read the book very slowly, pausing now and then to better digest the story line and to not waste a word. The book is classified as the genre 'Cultural Heritage' but here are so many other categories in which it could comfortably sit with it's historical element in the first half, the love stories, the travel and suspenseful second-half embracing terrorism, intrigue and murder, the revolution and downfall of the Ceaușescu regime.

Romanian history over the past 60 years was interwoven with the story in a way both necessary and shocking. I feel ashamed that I knew so little, only what we in the UK were fed by various news agencies with their own agenda.  The account of the revolution in 1989 was accurate and moving. Luca by then was living in America and he gets the detailed news from his friend Gabriel by letter. It is  painfully realistic account and like often throughout the book, I had the impression I was reading something far more intimate than a novel.

Through the life and words of Luca, Bancesco explores the nature of love and how it alters or stays the same through the ages. During the course of the story, in various ways, he re-meets all the previous loves of his life and finds them (and himself) changed and yet unchanged. I found reading about love and the thin line that can divide love and desire in a man a fascinating insight. So often this is a subject that is written about (often in a cloying and sentimental manner) by a woman, so to read a realistic account of the way a man's mind works on this subject was enlightening and refreshing and also not so very different from the way a woman's works, when stripped of all sentimentality........

During the course of the book Luca experiences the sexual love of many women, but in such a beautifully written way and so subtly talked about that there is nothing offensive or smutty, and  the reader is left feeling that Luca would care for any woman in his life and never boast about them as conquests, even in his own thoughts.

After he encounters the enigmatic Florentina, sent by the even more enigmatic Irina, in his habitual night time haunt, the famous or infamous Circe nightclub in Bucharest, things begin to take on a sinister note and he finds himself part of an international espionage mission, which nearly gets him killed.

Coming full circle on his return trip and hoping to again meet Lujza, he returns to the strange club, Hébe-Hóba, (the site,in the first part of the story,  of one of the most erotic cooking scenes I have ever read.)

He stopped across the street from the two-story corner building and looked at the neon sign hanging unsteadily above the door. The street level windows were boarded up, a detail he couldn’t have noticed before. In the morning light, his surroundings seemed at once strange and familiar. That moment of uncertainty reminded him of “The Secret of Dr. Honigberger,” Mircea Eliade’s spine-chilling story of a student who goes on a quest for the whereabouts of a disappeared physicist—his former professor—and finds himself knocking at familiar doors, haunting familiar streets, but gradually sinking in the realization that somehow he had been cast into another time. Luca wondered how the sight of two boarded-up windows could trigger in him such a disturbing sense of estrangement. He knew that he would never again walk through the door of that nightclub. The prospect of being face-to-face with Lujza for one last time, if only to share a square of almás pite, seemed as absurd an undertaking as time travel.
 
As reviewer Simone Camilleri so eloquently puts it:
 
 .... in the end we discover that Luca has not gone adrift without recourse. That is, in and of itself, a redemption, for it returns him to the hope and optimism of his childhood, as this epigraph for Part 1, so aptly highlights:

"… the green paradise of childhood loves … is for many a future in reverse, an obverse of hope in the face of the gray purgatory of adult loves."
 
This is an outstanding book and I urge you to read it both for  the enjoyment of an exceptionally good story, beautifully told, and for the sheer joy of reading Mr. Bancesco's beautiful words.

Adrift is available from Amazon.co.uk (click here) and Amazon.com (click here)

About the author:
Born in Bucharest, Romania, E. J. Bancesco graduated from the Institute of Architecture in Bucharest, in 1975. In 1983, he and his wife immigrated to the United States and they established their home in Boston, Massachusetts.

From 1998 to 2003, Mr. Bancesco studied advanced painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. In 2005, he accepted a position of Principal at an internationally renowned architectural firm, and since then, has been practiced his profession domestically and across the Far East Asia.

Passionate about art, literature and music, Mr. Bancesco is a tireless writer.  His first novel Adrift, is the fruit of nearly 20 years of literary labor of love.  Currently, he and his wife, Luminitza, live in Chicago, Illinois.  They have a daughter who works for an NGO, on international humanitarian projects. 

© Diana Milne: May 2017

6 comments:

  1. I can see why you were so captivated by this book, and find myself longing to read it.

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    1. Louise, it is well worth reading. A really beautiful book tht can be read on so many levels.

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  2. I absolutely loved this book too, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

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  3. Thank you, Diana, Simone, Louise and THE REVIEW contributors.

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    1. It is my genuine pleasure to not just read this book (twice in three weeks!) but to unreservedly recommend it.
      Diana

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