Excerpt from Private Life by Jane Smiley, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Private Life

By Jane Smiley

Private Life
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  • Hardcover: May 2010,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2011,
    336 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Print Excerpt


In that moment, the racetrack vanished before her eyes. The orderly place it had been once, with horses passing here and there, and people walking purposefully or filling buckets or rolling bandages or raking walkways, gave way to high fences with guards outside them (armed), and milling groups of people inside them, not orderly or purposeful, but a melee—too many people, no horses, everything and everyone in a state of restlessness.

They were allowed through the entrance and directed to park to the left, in what was apparently a small visitors’ section. This, too, was fenced off. Pete came around and opened her door. She said, I’m so glad you brought me here.

They asked for you.

Have you been coming here?

I found them last week. This is my third visit. Since I’m not a family member, it might have to be my last. I know one guy—one guy only—and he’s not in the army, and the army runs things here.

He took her elbow. In his other hand, he carried a bag, but she couldn’t tell what was in it.

The stalls had become makeshift rooms. All the doors were open, because the stalls had no other windows—if a door were closed, there would be no air, except, perhaps, through the cracks in the plank walls. She couldn’t help staring as she went by (smiling, of course, in case anyone looked at her). The walls in the stalls had been whitewashed, but badly—nothing had been done underneath the whitewash to repair cracks or dents where the walls had been kicked—no doubt the stalls hadn’t even been scrubbed down. But every stall was full—hanging clothes, suitcases, boxes, people, chairs, beds, little tables. They walked down one aisle, came to a cross-aisle, turned left, walked three more aisles, turned right at “Barn H.” People looked at them as they passed, voices dropping, or falling silent altogether. Two children, little boys, shouted Hi! Hello! Howdy! in unison, and then went into a fit of giggles. She smiled at them, sorry she had nothing for them. Left again. Pete paused, looked around. Now they were at the far end of Barn G. He said, I thought they were here, and stepped back and looked up. Then he stepped forward and peeked over the half-door. Behind him, she peeked, too. There, on the back wall, was a painting of Mr. Kimura’s that she recognized, a pair of finches, one perched on a railing and the other below, perched on the rim of a small bucket, drinking from it. The stall was neat, or as neat as it could be, but, like the others, it was full of things. The Kimuras had never lived grandly, and over the years the neighborhood in Vallejo where they had their shop had sometimes been quite wild, but the sight of the painting hanging here suddenly struck her in a way that the whole scene had not yet. She gave a little gasp and said, This is unbearable!

At least they have a whole one to themselves. Some families are crammed in two to a stall.

You lived in a stall.

As a lark. Or if I wanted to sleep later than four in the morning.

She felt the rebuke.

But neither Naoko Kimura nor her mother, Kiku, appeared. The people in the two neighboring stalls smiled but didn’t speak. Pete
opened the stall door and set the bag inside.

I don’t like this.

Why not?

Because, when I was here two days ago, Kiku was quite ill. If she’s up and walking around by now, I would be amazed.

Leaving her to assimilate this alarming news, he walked up the row three stalls and fell into conversation with a man who was standing there. He came back in a hurry.

We have to go to the infirmary, which is next to Barn V. That’s across the compound. He says she went over there yesterday morning. They carried her on a stretcher.

Excerpted from Private Life by Jane Smiley. Copyright © 2010 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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