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Novel set across 20th Century USA and CUBA

18th May 2023

The Broken Places by Russell Franklin, novel set across 20th Century USA and Cuba.

The Broken Places is a fascinating fictional treatment of the life of Gregory Hemingway, also known as Gloria, the youngest child of the Nobel Prize-winning American author, Ernest Hemingway. The book follows Greg’s journey from being a confused and sensitive boy into a chaotic adulthood. Ernest’s reputation as a great writer was inescapable and he was a huge figure in all senses; thriving on the adulation he received. But this didn’t make for a story of happy families: the book explores Greg’s fear of his father’s disapproval and the withdrawal of Ernest’s contact or affection, as well as the constant threat of violence. Greg did what he could to impress his father and hence win his approval. Luckily, he was born strong and athletic; well able to compete in shooting, boxing and baseball. But could he hope to match his father’s mythical status in any respect?

Despite their parents’ divorce, Greg and his brother Patrick grew up with a privileged lifestyle, flitting between their mother’s home in Key West and their father’s in Cuba. Greg and Patrick spent much of their boyhoods without adult supervision – indeed the author depicts them as mini-adults: drinking, smoking and following grown-up pursuits. Even their attitudes and dialogue are seldom childlike. As an adult, Greg says to brother Patrick, “I guess we had a weird childhood, being raised by an icewoman and Hercules. It just knocked a few screws loose in both of us.” The boys had to share their father with the wider public: even their playmates, the local boys in Cuba, called Hemingway “Papa” too, “Like they had some claim on him”.

Greg’s adult relationships followed a similar pattern to his father’s, with failed marriages, and he blamed himself for he saw as his failings in life but felt powerless to overcome them. He even felt responsible for the deaths of those close to him, recalling the death of friend and his sense that he had killed his mother. He struggled to overcome manic depression and a compulsion to dress in women’s clothing, which initially he felt is wrong. It was many years before he fully explored his identity as Gloria, and even more before he overcame the sense of shame that went with it. He acknowledged his recklessness: when his wife left him and his life spiralled out of control, he realised, “He was breaking it. He was ruining everything­–”. But his risk-taking persisted and each time he suffered as a consequence.

The book isn’t unmitigated gloom, however: far from it. We feel deeply for the little child in Greg and empathise with his struggles. We can identify many appealing characteristics and the few strong relationships he managed to maintain, such as that with Patrick, show that he was valued by others. This is why the reader hopes that Greg can avoid the patterns of behaviour that recurred in his family.

Gregory Hemingway was brought up in the Florida Keys and Cuba and the author uses rich, poetic language, vividly describing the jewel-bright, kaleidoscopic and ever-shifting settings of this biographical novel. The heat and oppression of the Hemingways’ Caribbean households are contrasted with the vast open landscapes and isolated communities of Montana, where Greg chooses to live as an adult. As the book spans the latter half of the twentieth century, it’s interesting to see descriptions of Florida before mass tourism struck and the political changes brought about by Castro in Cuba.

The language Russell Franklin employs in The Broken Places is wonderful and you just want to take a dive deep between the covers to immerse yourself in this engaging story. Gregory Hemingway is portrayed as a sympathetic character, and we are rooting for him from the outset. If I have a complaint, it is that the story flits about in time so much, which is confusing. I wonder whether anything would have been lost if the author had chosen a more chronological approach. Some elements of Greg’s later life are skimmed over – two of his marriages are only outlined – including the last, to Ida, a post-operative trans woman. But then, this is Greg’s/Gloria’s story and I concede that Ida might be a distraction. The Broken Places is a deeply satisfying read, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Sue for the TripFiction Team

Catch the author on Twitter @rml_franklin

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