A Short Time To Stay Here: A Novel, by Terry Roberts
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Turner Publishing Company through Edelweiss. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
If you have an interest in Appalachian North Carolina, obscure parts of World War I history, or solidly written stories that blend family conflict, culture classes, the interaction between war and society, or satisfying and bittersweet romance, this is a well-written and page-turning piece of literary fiction that ought to be of interest. Coming squarely in the compelling based on a true story tradition, this particular novel has at its heart a series of complicated relationships in a rural North Carolina luxury hotel that happens to have been chosen for some reason by the War Department as an internment camp for members of the German merchant marine after our entry into World War I. A North Carolina native himself, the author captures the complicated interplay between family politics, local politics, service politics within the internees, national politics, and geopolitics in a convincing fashion as alcoholic hotel manager Stephen Robbins attempts to deal with the hostility of his cousin the local sheriff, pursues an awkward but couching courtship with a married but separated New York amateur photographer Anna Ullman, and tries to keep his job even as he navigates the demands of the War Department and moves from a hotel manager used to being invisible to the warden of a swanky and awkward rural prison camp.
It would be hard to imagine a more Nathanish novel, but for whatever reason literary fiction tends to produce Nathanish novels with some regularity . Among the reasons why this novel excels is that it contains excellent characterization along with an exciting plot. It is unclear whether the characters could be considered fully round, but they are certainly complex people with mixed motivations in terms of career, longings, and the burdens of their heart. Stephen Robbins is a hotel manager and local Johannes Factotum who happened to be a poor local boy made good through extensive reading as self-education in order to better serve the cultured outsiders who patronized his hotel and who got his job as a result of the largess of his former father-in-law, but who is also a functioning alcoholic who self-medicates to dull the longings of a passionate and sensitive heart. Anna Ullman, who has a meet cute at the village’s railway depot where she confuses Stephen for the hired help, is a privileged New York woman estranged from her psychologist husband who treats her like a fragile porcelain doll. It should therefore come as little surprise that the two fall in love and that everyone else should be in on the secret before Stephen himself realizes it. Meanwhile, Robbins’ father-in-law dies, leaving his eldest son in charge of his business empire and Stephen’s job hanging by a thread, even while he attempts to deal with the hotheaded German sailors in his midst and attempts by some locals to kill the internees, and as he navigates the tension between the demands of his job and the pressures of his new boss, the local politics of the area, his desires for increased intimacy with Anna, and the shadowy spycraft of the War Department, all of which vie for his attention and test his resources and resilience.
These various and tangled threads all come to a head in a satisfying climax which I will not spoil except to say that someone ends up dead, someone ends up running away for reasons of espionage, someone ends up on trial, and the novel ends with a sense of hope with the possibility of renewal and a chance at happiness for the characters we most care about. This is a successful novel, successful as a look at an obscure part of history, successful at conveying the reality of PTSD and the horrors of war and the longing for love and peace, intimacy and wholeness and family in a world that so often cruelly mocks our hopes and longings. This is the sort of fiction that wins awards, that charms readers who appreciate strong literary fiction, and at about 300 pages makes for the sort of novel one wants to complete if possible in a day, to set aside hours for to get lost in the world of the incongruous rural North Carolina hotel and its denizens, to see if everyone will make it out alright, even the prisoners themselves. If you love reading about the mountains, and want to see some damaged but mostly decent people find some happiness in a world that seems pitted against them, it is hard to imagine a better novel than this one, which manages to stay mostly on the sweet side of bittersweet, and end up as a compelling but ultimately hopeful novel that reminds us of the common humanity held by strangers of many kinds.
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