Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Forgetfulness by Ward Just




(Highly Recommended)




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The 272 pages of Ward Just’s new novel, Forgetfulness, pack a wallop. Thomas Railles is a 65 year old Wisconsin native, who now lives as a portrait painter in a village in the Pyrenees region of France with his French wife, Florette. The world becomes too small when Florette is killed by terrorists while taking a mountain walk. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Thomas blames himself, thinking in part, that some surveillance work he did on the side for some old CIA friends may have led to her death. While he considers avenging her death, he gets an invitation to attend the interrogation of one of her suspected killers. He longs to receive that gift of the old: forgetfulness, rather than exert vengeance, which provides no real solace. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Granger,” pp. 38-43:


Thomas Railles, in their bedroom, sorted through the items on her dresser one by one. They were everyday familiar, but he had rarely noticed them: photographs of her mother and Tante Chris­tine and the postmaster, husband number one, looking official in a blue hat. He had been dead some years and she seldom spoke of him except to remark on his loyalty to the post office, one of the sublime achievements of French civilization, established by Louis XI and nationalized by the immortal Bonaparte himself. There were two pho­tographs of her and Thomas in the mountains, snow-covered peaks in the distance. Florette wore a black beret and they both carried walking sticks; same beret, same walking sticks in both pictures. He leafed through a stack of postcards, then straightened them as you would straighten a deck of cards. He paused to look left at the Matisse sketch over the bed, the head of a young woman so ardent you felt she might fly off the paper and become flesh in front of your eyes. He had bought it for Florette on their first wedding anniver­sary and he had never seen her so pleased. The price would have ap­palled her but she never asked. With difficulty Thomas turned back to the task at hand, his inventory. There was a sewing kit and a crucifix on a silver chain with strands of her hair and next to the crucifix an alligator jewel box he had bought in Rome years be­fore. A company of elephants ranged in a semicircle around the pho­tographs: marble elephants from Thailand, stone elephants from South Africa, ebony elephants from Kenya, and a silver elephant from India. The Indian elephant came with a howdah and a minia­ture maharajah wearing a pointed turban. All of them were gifts from Bernhard Sindelar and Russ Conlon. Wherever they went in the world they bought elephants for Florette. Elephants were good luck. Also, they had excellent memories and were faithful to one an­other. Thomas touched each elephant in turn, then reached into his pocket and put the gold cigarette lighter next to the jewel box. She had left the lighter on the dining room table the afternoon she went for her walk in the mountains. He looked again at the photographs of himself and Florette, and the one of the postmaster.

When he asked her about him, she waved the question away.

What attracted you to him?

The usual things, she said.

Really, he’d insisted. I’m serious.

He never asked questions, she said. That was what attracted me to him. Then, softening some, she laughed dryly. I can’t remember, she said. It was so long ago. He wasn’t a brute, I can tell you that. And, my God, he did love his post office.

From the bedroom window Thomas could see the driveway, cars parked haphazardly along it. He watched the mayor and his wife and daughter walk to their Citroën, get in, and drive away. He knew people wouldn’t leave until he put in an appearance, accepted their condolences, thanked them for coming. Thomas did not move when he heard a knock on the door, and whoever it was went away. He wanted them all to go away but did not know how to go about telling them. Grief could not be shared or even communicated ex­cept in slovenly ways. Bernhard and Russ promised to take care of everyone but they hadn’t succeeded. One voice rose above the oth­ers but Thomas could not identify it. Ghislaine, perhaps, or the doc­tor who lived in the village. Florette and Dr. Picot had been child­hood friends and she was good enough to supervise the autopsy herself, and that morning at the service she offered to explain any­thing he wanted explained.

I can’t tell you much that you don’t already know or suspect, Dr. Picot said.

Thomas was standing next to his car, the urn containing Flo­rette’s ashes in his arms. The burial was private.

She said, Florette was in good health, strong as an ox despite her filthy cigarette habit. Her ankle fracture was very serious and natu­rally there was hypothermia due to the cold. The cut at her throat was not deep and there was very little bleeding because her body was so cold. Her blood was beginning to congeal. Strong as she was, all this was too much for her. When she was cut her heart stopped. I am certain she was unconscious so at the end the cold would not have mattered to her. I’m bound to say that one hour would have made the difference but I’m sure you and your friends did the best you could under the circumstances. She had a bad time of it, I’m afraid. It’s a blessing that at the end she was surely unconscious. The cold, her injuries. She had tremendous faith, as you know, and her faith would have helped her through her ordeal. Still, the experience would have been very lonely for her and frightening. Is it true there were four men? Whoever they were, they deserve to rot in hell.

I’m sure they will.

Poor Florette. It’s not the first time something of this sort has happened, men from outside the region, poaching, smuggling, run-fling guns or drugs or just running away.

These mountains—the doctor began but did not finish her thought. Instead, she shrugged and walked away.

He wondered what Dr. Picot wanted to tell him about the moun­tains. Probably she had an urge to explain the local superstitions but thought better of it. So he was left with Florette’s urn in his arms, imagining her blood going cold as her heart failed. The other details he put at the back of his mind.

Thomas watched the doctor make her way to her car, head down, moving slowly. When she turned suddenly to look up at the bedroom window, he gave a little wave of his hand and knocked wood. She blew a kiss and continued on her way. The doctor was not an agreeable woman but she was a good friend to Florette; and he did not believe that one hour would have made any difference. He watched Dr. Picot’s car move off, the sunlight so bright it hurt his eyes. He did not know what he would do for the remainder of the af­ternoon. He had thirty people in his house. They were good to come but he didn’t want them there. Thomas moved the silver ele­phant so that it stood beside the photograph of him and Florette having their picnic in the mountains. The time was spring. She had bought cold chicken and a block of pâté and a bottle of the local rosé. She told risque stories of village life when she was a girl, hilari­ous stories with the flavor of Rabelais. They were nothing like the stories of LaBarre when he was a boy. Thomas stared at the photo­graph and tried to remember the exact spot on the mountain where they had had their picnic but he could not; it was so long ago and all mountains looked the same when you were on them.

Thomas pressed the heels of his hands on the dresser top and leaned until his forehead touched the windowpane, warm from the autumn sun. The noise downstairs continued. He did not want to face them but knew that he must for Florette’s sake. He took a sip of wine from the glass on the dresser. He had forgotten it was there but almost at once he felt better, moving into some variety of equilib­rium. The person he wanted with him was St. John Granger, dead now nearly one week. Granger knew how to get rid of people. He had been successfully getting rid of people for decades. Granger, master of the silent stare, connoisseur of the oblique and puzzling remark; and all the time he was laughing inside, as he said, “where it counted.” Also, he knew what to do with himself of an afternoon. A single glass of wine at lunch, a book, a nap, tea at four o’clock, a stroll before dinner. Granger swung on a tight compass, having seen as much of the world as he cared to see. He was not tempted by pyr­amids or South Sea islands. He believed the world was overrated. All a man needed was his health, a comfortable house, his books, and a billiards table on which the varieties of experience were near infinite. He laced his talk with billiards expressions, angle shots, bal­ance points, bad hits, corner hooks, feather shots, force-follows, time shots, table runs. He believed restlessness was the enemy of achievement—not that he valued achievement. Granger called him­self a species of ghost and that was surely true. He cast no shadow on the earth, and an evening’s conversation over the billiards table, bro­ken as it was by interminable silences, seemed to halt time itself. Granger had had one profound experience as a young man and spent the rest of his life feeding off it, existing in a realm where ex­perience was irrelevant. His life was a kind of force-follow, ex­treme overspin with a hesitation when it encountered resistance. Thomas laughed suddenly, looking at the elephants and thinking about Granger.

Do you know, Granger said one night, that no American has won the world three-cushion billiards championship since 1936?

No, I didn’t know that.

Belgians have won it twelve times. Not one American. Or Eng­lishman either. One German.

Why do you suppose that is, Granger?

Granger, sighting an angle shot over his left knuckle, waited a moment before replying. Too much war experience, Thomas. Too little patience.

Captain St. John Granger had been with Allenby’s Third Army at La Boisselle, July 1, 1916, the worst day of the war, a German-ex­pressionist horror from sunup to dusk. Along the salient that day there were 58,000 casualties including 20,000 dead, the numbers rounded off because no one had a precise count. Bodies disap­peared, blown to pieces or lost in the mud. On July 2, Captain Granger crawled out of a hole and began walking. The battlefield was shrouded in early morning mist the color and density of pearls. The air smelled of fish. Granger glided over the scarred and barren terrain of no man’s land, stepping carefully to avoid the corpses and pieces of corpses. He was bound for the British lines. No one no­ticed him and in his shock and confusion Granger believed he had become invisible. He had become one with the thick and swirling mist and so he continued unchallenged through the lines and the headquarters behind the lines. Aid stations gave way to hospitals that gave way to makeshift morgues. The fish smell grew stronger with each step he took. Granger walked across the hills until, that evening, he found himself in Albert, clad now in the blue work clothes of a French peasant. The day after that he was in Amiens, and that night in Paris, well turned out in a light-colored suit and a straw boater. He dined at Fouquet’s and went home with a girl. The next week he was in Geneva, arranging a transfer of funds, a more complicated business than it might seem because by then he was re­ported missing in action and presumed dead. His brother, Adrian, worked for a bank in the City of London and so the transfer was made, but made most reluctantly because his banker brother did not believe in desertion in time of war, a scandalous affair, the coward’s way out, letting down the side. Thank God our father and mother are gone, they could not have borne your disgrace. What will you do now? St. John said nothing, listening to his brother’s voice as if it were a stranger’s overheard in a railway car or on the street. He was neither insulted nor angry. He was certainly not chastened. He was indifferent to his brother’s opinions because they were unearned. His brother had never seen a trench, an aid station, a morgue, or an armed enemy. He knew that in the end Adrian would comply, and in the end Adrian did. When St. John was told the details of the money transfer, the account numbers, and the verification procedures, he said a curt goodbye and hung up. They never spoke again.


Just tackles moral dilemma, grief, and the tests of character on the pages of Forgetfulness. Slogans and simplicity are missing on these pages, and readers are all the better for that.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2007 issue of Executive Times


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