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Thursday, May 1, 2014

'The Assembler of Parts: A Novel' by Raoul Wientzen

From the BLURB:

From the start of this extraordinary first novel, eight-year-old Jess finds herself in heaven reviewing her short life. She is guided in this by a being she calls the Assembler of Parts, and her task, as she understands it, is to glean her life’s meaning. From birth, it was obvious that she was unlike other children: she was born without thumbs. The Assembler left out other parts too, for she suffers from a syndrome of birth defects that leaves her flawed. But soon it becomes apparent that by her very imperfections she has a unique ability to draw love from—and heal—those around her, from the team of doctors who rally to her care, to the parents who come together over her, to the grandmother whose guilt she assuages, to the family friend whom she helps reconcile with an angry past. With a voice full of wisdom and humor, she tells their stories too. Yet, only when she dies suddenly and her parents are suspected of neglect, unleashing a chain of events beyond her healing, does the meaning of her life come into full focus. And only then does the Assembler’s purpose become clear.

This is the story of Jess in heaven, as she reviews her short eight years of life via film footage The Assembler provides.

Jess was born without thumbs, missing bones, an incomplete heart and half-formed ears.

We see how dearly loved Jess was, and how marvellous her childhood. A mother who loved her fiercely from the first, her father who took a while to come around, and their friend Joe Cassidy who saw in Jess his own child who was also taken too young. Then there were the doctors who played such an important part in Jess’s short – and sometimes painful – life.

Down on earth and unbeknownst to Jess, her family turn their missing and grieving to a wrongful death lawsuit that takes them down a dark path – particularly when fame and money-hungry lawyers distort Jess’s memory.

‘The Assembler of Parts’ was the 2013 debut novel by Raoul Wientzen.

I read and loved this novel last year, and even included it in my end-of-year favouriteslist. But I couldn’t write a review until now – partly because I insisted on passing the book on to my nearest and dearest first – and also to collect my thoughts and feelings on this beauty.

The best way I can think to describe Wientzen’s impressive, heartfelt debut is as an adult equivalent to R.J. Palacio’s ‘Wonder’, with a heaven-bent similar to Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’. But, having made those comparisons, I must stress that ‘The Assembler of Parts’ is unlike anything else I’ve ever read and Raoul Wientzen’s lyrical voice is utterly unique.

Our narrator is eight-year-old Jess, reflecting on her life as she resides in heaven. And though she doesn’t sound like any typical eight-year-old, it can be debated that she didn’t have a typical life. If anything, as she reflects on her complicated life before death, I came to believe in this young woman’s wise and tender words, her astute observations and extraordinary leniencies as she observes herself from day dot;

Father took a picture of us that morning just before we left to go home. The room was festooned with flowers and balloons. Mother was holding me cradled in the crook of one arm, and in the other rested a bouquet of red and white roses. Her head was inclined toward me and she was smiling, with sunlight on her neck. It became our family’s Christmas card ten months later. I studied it many times as I grew older. I was five before I understood its powerful message. The sleeves of my sweater are pulled up to the mid-portion of my forearms. My baby-pink skin shines against the bright red silk. The looking eye notes that contrast immediately. The eye is drawn also to the hands, the four-fingered hands, the thumbless hands. There are two bouquets in Mother’s arms, her message to the world.

The first half of the novel is a the story of a childhood – mostly wonderful, sometimes painful – and these feelings seemingly magnified by the knowledge that Jess’s is too short, and lived with so much pain amidst so much love. This is distilled in the two most important men in her life; father, Ford, who initially struggles with all the obstacles his daughter has to overcome and family friend Joe Cassidy whose own wife and child were taken from him in a tragic accident, and who turned to drink as a way to cope. Cassidy in particular, Wientzen uses to really distil this idea that there is beauty in the heartbreak, and something to be learnt from tragedy. Cassidy loves Jess wholeheartedly right from the beginning, and is probably her first real friend who instils important lessons and outlooks in her early on;

He took my hand in his. “These are good hands. Good as any, Jess. The Assembler made ‘em, and He don’t make junk. You got enough fingers for two kids. Enough voice for ten. He makes everything just to please Himself. The bones and the skin, the meat and the sap, just the way it suits Him.” He let go of my hand and tweaked me on the arm. “Bones and sap.” 
I nodded. “He makes things like I make cookies?” I studded cookies with raisins – three eyes, or two, or one and as many noses as I wished – just for my own pleasure, and then gave them to Mother or Nana to admire. Then I’d get to bake them and eat them. 
“He got everything together in one place and glued you all together and there you were, and you made Him happy,” he said nodding. 
“Nails, screws, glue and whatnot,” I added casually. “The Assembler did it.”

The novel takes a bit of a sharp turn as we catch-up in real time to Jess’s death, and how her family cope (unbeknownst to her) in the aftermath. It becomes painful lawsuits and malpractice suits, accusations of parental neglect and the distortion of their daughter’s memory by misguided lawyers. This second-half feels more like a whodunit unfolding, and after reading about Jess’s childhood that helped shape our inquisitive and lovable narrator, it is quite jarring to read such misery.

But this novel mimics life in the up’s and down’s – and lessons to be learnt in even the darkest of times. And, always, there is Raoul Wientzen’s stunning prose to buoy the reader;

There were so many worlds in my mother’s face, a dozen at least in her round brown eyes, a hundred in her smiles.

I adored this novel. I think it’s one that adults and young adults can enjoy, because everyone can learn something from Jess’s well-lived life, no matter it was too short and full of seeming obstacles.


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