Upon entering the Central Branch of my public library, one of the first things a visitor sees is a rather extensive looking display of new books. Until just recently, this display boasted a shelf of newly published fiction entitled “Librarians Choice.” For years I ignored this shelf, probably because I preferred to read nonfiction, as opposed to fiction. But a few months ago, I decided to explore the Librarian’s Choice shelf. So far, my gamble has paid off. It’s led me to both books I thoroughly enjoyed namely Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square and Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything. It looks like this gamble was a good one, since the latest book I discovered on the Librarian’s Choice shelf, Marshlands by Matthew Olshan I quite enjoyed.
Published in February of 2014, Olshan’s novel is told in reverse chronological order. It begins with the release of a mysterious political prisoner who’s been held for decades, presumably in solitary confinement. He’s been released into a world he barely recognizes and left impoverished and broken – both physically and emotionally. His spends his empty days sitting on a park bench, getting robbed and generally living like a homeless person. After being injured in a riot, a local museum curator rescues him and gets him medical attention. Later, she takes him to a dentist who repairs the damage 20 years’ of imprisonment and brutal, physical torture can do to a prisoner’s mouth. The dentist soon recognizes him as “that man”, produces an old photograph from the pages of an almanac and makes a big stink, forcing the man and his new benefactor to leave.
But who is this man? Through two sets of flashbacks, we learn he was a battlefield surgeon with a talent for languages who the served in some unnamed Western military that spent a number of years occupying the country where, 20 years later he now resides. Just like in ‘s Waiting for the Barbarians, this country is never named. Some readers think it’s really Iraq, since much of the action in the two flashbacks takes place in the Marshlands. In addition, based on country’s terrain and culture the novel feels like it’s set somewhere in the Middle East. Decades ago, this surgeon did something presumably treasonous that got him thrown in some hellish prison. But what was it?
I enjoyed Marshlands and thought the writing was superb. I was impressed to learn that it’s Olshan’s first adult novel. (According to the jacket blurb up to this point he’s been a children’s writer.) Looks like this novel was a Librarian’s Choice for some pretty good reasons. I’m glad I found it.