Book review: The Narrows

The Narrows
By Alexander C. Irvine
Published by Del Rey, a division of Random House Publishing Group, 2005, released in paperback 2010
ISBN: 9780345466983
Advance review copy provided by the publisher.

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

This book should have been a delightful revisionist historic fantasy. Set during World War II in Detroit, the protagonist, Jared Cleaves, is a young man working in one of Henry Ford’s factories (Building G, near the center of the Ford River Rouge factory complex) manufacturing golems for the war effort. So why did I find it such a long, tedious read? Well, first there’s Jared’s rah-rah attitude about the war; he’s deferred from the draft because of a childhood injury to his hand that left him unable to hold a gun. He’s depressed because he actually wants to be at the front, shooting Nazis and getting shot at, to prove his manhood.

Second, the racist attitudes of the book’s predominantly white characters toward American Negroes and American-born Germans are so upfront and downright ignorant that it disgusts me. I know that kind of attitude was common back then, but it still bothers me to read about it. Being a minority myself (Hecho en Nueva York, but still primarily Puerto Rican), I tend to identify with other minorities. Even the blasé way that everyone accepts the existence of magic and the fact that both the U.S.A. and Germany are using it to help them win the war is spoiled for me by the factory workers’ constant references to “niggers” and the anti-Semitic way they treat the rabbi who animates the golems they build.

Third, the worst part was finding out that our hero, Jared, is nothing but a pawn on the chessboard of the local powers that be, the local OEI office vs. the local Nazi spies. Both sides know that Jared’s got magic in his blood through his mother, a native of the Ozarks who practiced witchcraft in her youth, and from having seen the Nain Rouge, or Red Dwarf, a creepy character who always appears just before a major disaster in the Detroit area.

It was the Dwarf who caused Jared to injure his hand when he was just a little boy riding in his father’s Model-T Ford while the old man was running rum during Prohibition. The Dwarf also keeps running through Jared’s dreams, blasts from the past where Jared finds himself reliving the POV of a historic character who also saw the Dwarf just before something horrendous happened; Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac, the French explorer who founded Detroit, who was run out of town by British troops in 1701, a British soldier before the British were slaughtered at the battle of Bloody Run in 1763, a local baker before Detroit was burned down in 1805, and General Hull before he surrendered the city during the War of 1812. The Dwarf is definitely a harbinger of bad luck, and the General Marshall of the OEI as well as the local Nazi agents both want to use Jared to find the Dwarf, so they can sic him on their enemies.

Watching an honest man being batted around like a mouse between a group of cats is not something that I’m fond of. Seeing him sinking deeper and deeper into wartime intrigue while trying to serve his country and take care of his family, a young wife who strips airplane parts at another factory and an adorable two-year-old daughter, was almost painful. His arrogant boss, his snotty mother-in-law, and his wiseguy father don’t do much to endear themselves to the reader either.

If the story had been a bit more fastpaced, it might have been more bearable. But the pace is so slow, with so many historic flashbacks, not just in Jared’s dreams but in the narrative, as well as all the mentions on the side of how the war is doing overseas via radio broadcasts, newsreels and newspapers, is enough to make you scream. I know that Mr. Irvine is just trying to make it historically accurate, but I wish he had been a little more subtle about it. Overall, I would give “The Narrows” a C- for being well-intentioned and historically accurate, but too long. Even allowing for the fact that the copy I read was an advance uncorrected proof, I still thought it was too long. When they come out with a finished, proofread copy I may give it another try to see if it’s improved. But for now, I’m just glad to be finished with “The Narrows”. To paraphase what was said about King James I, nothing becomes this book as much as the ending of it. If only it had come sooner…!