Monday, August 08, 2022

Review of Trust by Hernan Diaz, an intricate literary puzzle-box set in early 20th-century New York

Pulitzer finalist Diaz’s brilliantly layered epic unfolds through a quartet of accounts, each of which adds new meaning to the ones that have gone before—much in the vein of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, but set in the world of early 20th-century corporate finance. The authors of the four tales are given up front, but the less said about how they relate to one another, the better. Readers will derive the greatest pleasure if they uncover the revelations themselves.

First is a short novel called Bonds by Harold Vanner, a pointed morality tale about New York stock market whiz Benjamin Rask, who accumulates great wealth while remaining isolated from its impact on others. Rask’s marriage to wife Helen, an intellectual from an old Albany family, is an agreeable if emotionally distant union, and they both like it that way. In a style reminiscent of Edith Wharton, Vanner draws readers into Rask’s money-making ventures and the scandal that befell the couple after the 1929 crash.

Next comes the incomplete autobiography of financier Andrew Bevel, who puts pen to paper—with eye-opening pomposity—to counter rumors about his investments and to honor his late wife, Mildred. Paired with Vanner’s novel, Bevel appears to cover similar ground, which may cause some confusion—but keep reading.

Up third, the memoir of Ida Partenza, an Italian anarchist’s daughter, is hugely satisfying as it brings the first two accounts into focus while leaving some mysteries for the last section to reveal (which it definitely does). Each part feels smoothly calibrated to its author’s personality and historical setting as the story continues to provoke questions about which person’s truth can be relied upon. Not only a powerful commentary on the effects of unfettered capitalism, Trust also exposes the complex art of mythmaking engineered by the rich and powerful, and those erased in the process.

Trust was published by Riverhead in the US in May; the UK publisher is Picador. I read it from a NetGalley copy for August's Historical Novels Review.  I'll just add that corporate finance hasn't ever been a particular fascination of mine, but the story was riveting.  I've seen numerous spoilers in other reviews, so be aware!

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