A mystery linking Manhattan circa 1991 to eastern Afghanistan in 2012, Blue Hours tells of a life-changing friendship between two memorable heroines. When we first meet Mim, she is a recent college graduate who has disavowed her lower middle class roots to befriend Kyra, a dancer and daughter of privilege, until calamity causes their estrangement. Twenty years later, Kyra has gone missing from her NGO’s headquarters in Jalalabad, and Mimnow a recluse in rural New Englandembarks on a journey to find her. In its nuance, originality, and moral complexity, Blue Hours becomes an unexpected page-turner.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Daphne Kalotay is the author of Calamity and Other Stories, which was short listed for the 2005 Story Prize. Her debut novel, Russian Winter, won the 2011 Writers’ League of Texas Fiction Prize, made the long list for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was nominated for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and has been published in twenty-three foreign editions. Her second novel, Sight Reading, was a Boston Globe bestseller, a finalist for the 2014 Paterson Fiction Prize, and winner of the 2014 New England Society Book Award in Fiction. She has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, MacDowell, and Yaddo. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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no man's land
We were college graduates, blasé about it, diplomas rolled into tubes. It was 1991; a diploma couldn't save you from having to stand behind a shop counter or sit answering a telephone at the front of some office. Saddam Hussein was back again, Yugoslavia was at war, the U.S. economy was sadly napping. With two school friends, I'd come to Manhattan straight from graduation, knowing only that I wanted to write. You could do that then, move to the city without a job or a plan, just some unreasonable dream, and survive.
We took what work we could find. I spent the days folding sweaters at a clothing store, and Adrienne, who was going to be an actress, waited tables at a place on Mercer. The other girl took a job as a receptionist at a dental office. We had managed to find a three-bedroom walk-up on a nondescript stretch of Lafayette that wasn't quite SoHo and wasn't quite Chinatown. Little Italy, too, was a block away. Exposed brick walls, two crumbling bathrooms, and an apparent mild gas leak. If there was money laundering going on, that was not our business. Our windows looked out over a cement traffic island that turned the street suddenly, uselessly, one-way, so that few cars ever passed. Vagrants spent long hours there in looping conversation.
He looks at me says I'm a let you go now. I'm a let you go now. Just like that.
Or maybe gone into shoe repair with my uncle.
I mean, come on, it was just two times!
Tied a yellow ribbon, sure, just don't ask what else she did.
Ancient grievances lobbed back and forth. The men never begged, or at least not from me. They probably knew I had little to offer, with my crumpled paper bags from the corner deli.
The stupid hunger of college girls who never learned to cook. Macaroni from a box with its little packet of orange powder, or brittle bricks of curly noodles plunged into broth. When my shift at the clothing store ended, I'd walk home along Broadway empty-bellied, light-headed, swooning at the pungent gusts from food carts. Too-sweet gray smoke of candied almonds, or toasty pretzels covered in big square flecks of salt. Once I found myself in a cheap accessories shop paying for a necklace whose red glass beads looked like cherry candy. Only when I'd left with necklace in hand did I understand that I wanted not to wear it but to eat it.
In my memory of that time I'm always famished, from fear of running out of money and from never having learned how to prepare a piece of meat. My mother had died when I was ten, and even after my father remarried we continued to just stick things in the microwave. The most I knew to do was sauté something: grayish mushrooms with a chopped onion, or a gloppy sauce of tomato paste, garlic, and water. My housemates were no better. When we grew ridiculously hungry, we went to Adrienne's restaurant, a cheap poly-Asian place where big bowls of sticky white rice disguised how little there was of the beef we had gone there for specially. For lunch, at the deli near the store where I worked, I always ordered the liverwurst sandwich — to stave off anemia, and also because liverwurst was the cheapest item on the board.
These days, of course, no upstarts can make a go of it in that city without someone to subsidize them. But back then there was still a chance. And so we lived by the peculiar American wisdom that has it better to tough things out in a questionable rental unit and charge one's life away on a credit card than to room at home or ask family for help.
Also, my father had officially cut me off. He was on to his third marriage by then and complained about the alimony.
Not that I expected his help. For four years on a walled campus of historic buildings near the Hudson, I had obscured the humble facts of my upbringing. The little house in Brighton, Massachusetts, with its stubby, crumbling driveway; the crappy public school; the Oldsmobile with the door rusted shut. What did it matter? Hadn't all great Americans worked their way up the economic ladder? Now we were the ones with the menial jobs, the desperate Friday paychecks. The nightly visions of mice, of stolid cockroaches ... the too-quick flutter of something down the tea towels.
I told myself it was just a stage. Temporary, the postdated checks, the fearful sorting of mail, envelopes with stern messages in red ink. Every once in a while, a moment of dumb luck: a twenty-dollar bill found on the sidewalk, or a trial-size sample of something handed out on a street corner. There was no shame in this. We were in a recession! Other friends worked in a bakery, a photocopying place — a chiropractor's office! My demotion from cum laude French major to retail clerk wasn't an insult, just something to get through. We weren't minions; we were "assistants." I wasn't broke; I was trouée au coude.
This was before Giuliani blustered in and swept everything up, before frat boys from the trading floor moved into what had been rent-controlled apartments. The city was everyone's and everyone had to deal with the grit. When you blew your nose at the end of the day, black crud came out. If a pipeline burst or some minor urban disaster took place, a long while passed before it was fixed. Forty-Second Street was still triple-Xs and peep shows, and Tompkins Square Park had just been closed. Squeegee men accosting cars with slimy mops ... Panhandlers, loud, on the subway cars ... Some unfortunate soul waiting for you to slip your token into the turnstile, so that she could try to suck it back up from the slot with her mouth.
Which is why a person could live there on a scrap of a job and still have as good a shot at a future as anyone. This, I suppose, is what I meant today, a full twenty years later, when I told Roy there was nothing left. That city doesn't exist anymore. Just as the girl I was no longer exists.
It's only an hour or so ago that he called. Found me through my agent. Two decades since we last spoke, but his voice ruffled me just the same. A Rhode Island telephone number, as if he never left home. He told me Kyra's missing.
That's how he put it: "She's gone missing. It's been three days."
My heart did something it hadn't done in a long time, a sort of hiccup but sharp. I said, "You mean she's run away?" Can a forty-something-year-old run away? Well, why not, if you're Kyra. Midlife crisis, probably. I had mine two years ago and nearly ended up divorced.
But I must have already sensed it was something else. Roy said no one seemed to know what had happened. "Her posting mate says she went to meet a friend."
Posting mate. So, she's still with that NGO. Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders ... Years ago I allowed myself to look her up online, before quickly shoving her back into the locked trunk of memory. I asked Roy which ruined country she had touched down on now.
To my surprise, he seemed to think I should know. Apparently she sends out regular email broadcasts to friends. Now he was gathering any information he could get.
"I can't help you." I didn't mean to sound cold. It's just that I haven't spoken to Kyra in twenty years.
"If you'll kindly let me finish." Roy said it slowly. "I'm calling because I've received a package from her with your name on it."
"But — I don't believe it."
I heard him sigh, loudly. He explained that she had sent the package via diplomatic pouch, with a note instructing him to please make sure to get it to me. "So it seems to me she must have known she could be landing in some sort of trouble."
Give it to me? My name on it? I asked how he even knew she was missing.
"AidNow called this morning. I'm her emergency contact. Don't ask me why they waited three days. These nonprofits don't know how to do anything."
So, Roy hasn't changed.
"And now this package arrived. Look, what's your address? My secretary will have it couriered."
Kyra, in some sort of trouble. Gone off somewhere and disappeared. Roy was still speaking, asking me to be sure to please let him know when the package arrived. "And you'll tell me if there's anything in it about where she might have gone, right?"
Just when you think you've made it through the rough part — ushered your child past so many daily perils, reconciled with your beleaguered husband — the past returns to make demands. Just when you've begun to believe in the possibility of a peaceful life.
Roy must have misunderstood my silence. He said, "Don't tell me you still haven't forgiven her."
That confused me. For one thing, it's not true. I love Kyra. And I'm the one to blame, not her. It made me wonder what she had told him.
He said, "It's the past — can't you let go of all that?"
There's nothing left to let go of. That world is gone. Even the old apartment no longer exists. In its place is a twelve-story building of darkened glass — luxury condominiums, with a doorman and an exercise room. I've seen it advertised in the magazine section of the Times.
"Mim, I need your help. We're all she has. And those AidNow people are incompetent."
I gave him my address, though few people in the universe are allowed to know it. Let him send that package on its way to me. Kyra, missing. I keep replaying the conversation, trying to understand. I keep hearing Roy saying, I need your help.
Last we spoke, twenty years ago, it was me saying that, to him.CHAPTER 2
Impossible, now, not to think of Carl. His big duffel bag slumped in the corner, his cigarette butts in the jam jar on the window sill. Really it would be months before I met him or Kyra. I had just arrived in New York and was consumed with trying to become some new version of myself.
My face was rounder then, and I wore my hair in a bob, the tips curling in at my cheeks; I wanted to look like Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie and trimmed the bangs myself. I was convinced that if I could just perfect my look, I could erase the parts of my life I wanted to leave behind. My eyebrows were thick and dark, and I began shaping them with tweezers, because Adrienne, who had already been cast in a number of plays and knew about this sort of thing, told me to. To dress up I had either a short red woolen kilt or a stretchy black dress patterned with tiny orange polka dots, which I wore with black round-toed pumps of putative suede. Even with my discount at work, I was afraid to spend the little money I had. Nor did I peruse the thrift shops like Adrienne, who was always wearing some lace or satin or velvet thing that carried the scent of past decades. For that you need patience and vision.
Adrienne — jaunty, cool, in her Salvation Army finds. Her father was black, her mother half-white, half-Japanese, giving her enviable cheekbones and that rare combination of brown skin with light eyes. Long, thick, curly hair she could do all kinds of things with. Through her left nostril she wore a small silver hoop, and she had a wool cap she liked, with a little brim at the front, like a train conductor. But without the hoop or the cap, when she smoothed out her curls with a hair iron, she could transform into anyone.
By late summer she had been cast in a recurring television role, as a nameless ER nurse on one of the afternoon soaps. I still remember the surprise of seeing her on the screen that first time, wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard. She spoke her line ("Does the patient have any kin?") very sternly and, without really listening for an answer, jotted something down. Then, in a burst of improvisation, she put the stethoscope in her ears and walked away.
We had a fourth roommate by then, a last-minute attempt to help with the rent, a guy working his way through medical school. He would record the soap opera daily, for the simple pleasure of pointing out everything Adrienne's nurse did that was medically unsafe. Thirty-second takes in which she would blurt out some vaguely authoritative line ("I need to check his vitals!") and then, to show she meant business, roughly plump the pillow behind someone recovering from brain surgery, or give a small shove to a gurney or to an extra in a wheelchair.
Then, just before Christmas, my ex-stepsister, Janet, called from a real hospital, in Boston, and I had to get on a bus and go home.
She had been in an accident and needed a lot of surgery on her face. On the phone all she said was, "I fell."
She was four years older than me, petite and pretty, with pale blue eyes. Her mother had been my father's assistant and married him soon after my mother died. The cliché of it bothered Janet as much as the notion of a stepmother had bothered me. But for the three years we lived in the same household, Janet had been a savvy older sister to me, with her boyfriends and shoplifted bras and little swigs of my father's Jim Beam. Three piercings in each of her earlobes. Cigarettes hidden in an eyeglass case. Her hair was permed, her eyes rimmed with black liner. (Wet n Wild was the brand, the cheapest of drugstore makeup, but as a girl I thought it a statement of her nature.) In those years of my sadness and anger at losing my mother, Janet was the one who showed me how to weave my hair into a French braid, how to wield an eyelash curler, and later on, how to insert a tampon, how to light a joint. Before she had finished high school our parents split up — a big angry finish — and Janet and her mother moved back to an apartment over by Fenway. My father and I stayed in the Brighton house, and then began his Don Juan period. But Janet remained kind toward me.
Now her nose and cheekbone were broken, her forehead fractured. There was a white cast-like thing across the bridge of her nose. She was lying on the sofa in her apartment on Summit Avenue, not far from the B-line. On the other side of the hill lay the town of Brookline, with its well-appointed houses, underground power lines, and no overnight street parking (to keep the riffraff out). But on Janet's side — my side, the Allston-Brighton side — the telephone lines hung heavy with melting ice, and cars slumbered under husks of faintly blackened snow.
"It's amazing, Mim, the doctors used this new method so they wouldn't have to cut up my face. Since a lot of the damage was under the skin. They cut around the outer edges, see?" — Janet brushed her bangs from her hairline with a pale hand — "and then they just lifted the skin, like a flap on a suitcase. So they could reconstruct the bone and cartilage and everything underneath."
I felt ill and didn't want to picture it. I told her I still didn't understand what exactly had happened.
"I told you. I fell down the stairs."
Something made me wonder if that was all. Had she blacked out? She liked to drink. "Who called the ambulance?"
"Tim was with me. My boyfriend. Luckily."
Ah, right. She always had a boyfriend. "Where is he now?"
A small motion of the hand, these things happen, he'll be back. Her chatter stopped me from asking more — though it strikes me now that I must not have wanted to know.
The fact was, we had been growing apart. It started when I left for college, long conversations on the telephone becoming shorter, my replies elliptical. How could I explain to her the strangeness of life on a walled campus, that sheltered world of creaky dormitories guarded by loving matrons, of friends who had attended prep schools, of evening meals at la table française? The last time Janet and I had really been together was the summer I interned at the Atlantic. We had barely spoken since my move to New York. I suppose she was angry with me. She had wanted me to come back to Boston.
Only now do I see the strange truth of it: that it's because of Janet — because of her accident — that so many of the things that were about to happen happened.
At the time I was aware only of the awkwardness of the visit, and leaving Boston again as if I were fleeing. In my backpack were a lot of colored tights, Janet's Christmas gift to me. Impractical colors like orange and red and metallic silver, not to mention a lacy pair that I'm still not certain she realized had a big round purposeful hole where the crotch should be.
I mention this because it mattered to how I felt that day — to how I felt about my life — to be heading back to New York at year's end with a backpack full of hopeless stockings.
Janet had bought me a train ticket so that I wouldn't have to take the bus again. This was back when the Amtrak ran on diesel north of New Haven. Everyone would get off and pace the long platform and smoke cigarettes and watch the electric engine slide away, the old heavy diesel one dragged back on again. But it was so cold that day, only a few of us lined up to exit the train. Ahead of me was a girl about my age, with a perfect oval face and long, sleek hair as dark as mine. She had already taken out a cigarette and was sniffing the tip, impatient. For some reason I thought I knew her.
We stepped out into the frigid cold. Frileux was the word the boarding house manager in Paris — where I'd won a semester's study-abroad scholarship — had used when I asked to turn up the heat. Vous êtes frileuse. The dark-haired girl was already lighting her cigarette. I wondered if in fact I did know her. She was tall and slim, her back very straight, her coat a long fitted one of a neo-military style. She looked lapidary, imperial, as she walked farther down the platform, shoulders back, coattail flaring behind her. I took out my own cigarette, but I wasn't a real smoker and my matches kept snuffing out.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blue Hours"
Copyright © 2019 Daphne Kalotay.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 (The Island)
Part 2 (The Desert)
Part 3 (The World)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 3 How far would you go for a friend? Successful author Mim Woodruff faces this question when a call reveals that a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan has gone missing. Once an intensely close friend, Mim has not spoken to Kyra in twenty years. The novel is composed of two major parts: the first takes place in Manhattan twenty years before the phone call. Mim and Kyra, fresh out of school, finding their way in the world. Kyra stylish, pushing away the wealth that is her birthright, and possessed of a deep, almost painful, awareness of the distress around her; Mim, dreaming of being a writer but instead folding sweaters at Benetton, observing the world around her but always at a remove. A youthful but intense love affair, a shattering experience, and an almost surgical split lays the foundation for events twenty years later. Part two follows the journey Mim takes into ever-more remote Afghanistan in the search for the missing Kyra. Beautiful descriptions of the physical environment and the people. Well-researched portrayals of the organization of and interplay between the various factions, the military, the aid organizations, and those in remote villages. Stunning portraits of the individuals involved and those they avoid, warily approach, or engage. The story feels real — messy, inescapable, and somewhat hopeless — and yet giving up really can’t be an option. The tone is emotionally removed, like our central character. While I found the detail and depth of the story engaging, I did not resonate with the characters at all — in fact I really didn’t like Mim very much. As an author describing her observations from an objective viewpoint, she works; As an individual going through deeply personal experiences, not so much. Possibly this says more about me than her!
In Blue Hours we meet a group of recent college graduates in 1991 and then again twenty years later. Kyra, loved and lost by both Mim and Roy after they left school, is missing from her non-profit aid station in Afghanistan and her last known act was to send years of unmailed letters she had written to Mim, mailed to Roy to be delivered to Mim, presumably because she had Roy's address. Roy has the means to hire personnel to find Kyra, but he insists that he and Mim must go and do their best to locate her - they owe it to her to give this their personal attention despite the fact that Mim hasn't heard from Kyra in twenty years - until those letters delivered now. Mim's husband Nolan and her teenaged son Sean are self-sufficient enough to muddle through during her absence - they do it when she is on the road with the release of her latest novel - but Nolan, in particular, feels fearful at the very thought of her traveling through what is a major war zone with a man he doesn't know to find a woman she once loved. Those letters, read randomly as Mim finds a slice of free time, brings both Mim and Kyra into sharper focus, and gives their stories added depth. This story is action-packed, the descriptive passages during the trek through Afghanistan take you there, the people they encounter are well fleshed out and the attempts at rescuing Kyra are involved but plausible. This is a novel I am pleased to recommend to friends and family. I received a free electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, Daphne Kalotay, and Northwestern University Press. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me. I have read this novel of my own volition, and this review reflects my honest opinion of this work.