The Sussex Ghost: Lost Among the Living

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Review: Lost Among the Living, by Simone St. James
NAL, 2016. 318 pp. $15

For three years, Jo Manders has struggled with the loss of her husband, Alex, who flew for the RAF, and whose airplane crashed in German territory in 1918. The verdict of missing, presumed dead leaves her in limbo, which is painful enough. It also leaves her without a widow’s pension, which poses financial hardship, especially since she pays for the institution where her psychotic mother resides. (Her father, she never knew.) So when Alex’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, offers Jo a position as a companion, the distraught young woman gets rid of nearly all Alex’s belongings and accepts.

Airco D.H. 9A, part of the infant RAF, ca. 1918 (courtesy WIkimedia Commons, public domain)

What she hasn’t reckoned on is how difficult Dottie is and how impossible to talk to. She calls Jo “Manders,” as if she were a servant rather than a relative by marriage, and denies any emotion, as if it were the influenza pandemic revisited. There’s also the matter of Alex’s late, mentally disturbed cousin, Frances, who died plunging off the roof of the Forsyth manse in Sussex, at age fifteen, during the war. As happens with such tragedies among the gentry, rumors fly in town about the dead girl. To wit: She’s still alive, kept in chains, goes one story. No; she’s dead, and her ghost haunts the woods, scaring children who play there. Or it’s Frances’s dog that does the haunting, a monster more like, that can tear a human into pieces — and did so, once.

Lost Among the Living therefore sounds like Jane Eyre meets The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you like, you can throw in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, because of Jo’s employment as a companion, and because her married name resembles Manderley, the mansion in that story. So the novel under discussion here evokes famous literary bloodlines, which implies a responsibility. In large measure, St. James meets it.

Normally, I avoid Gothic fiction because so much of it relies on melodrama. I also have no patience for the supernatural or paranormal or whatever euphemism you want to use for ghosts playing field hockey in the attic. So how did Lost Among the Living rope me in and keep me reading?

Easy. St. James is a very skilled novelist, and her psychological insights, gift for characterization, and descriptive pen need no doors slamming by themselves to create suspense. She’s not afraid to linger on emotional transitions, and because she keeps the reader engaged, the narrative still moves at an enviable clip. From the first, she draws you in, creating Jo as a sympathetic character. Consider this early passage, when the young widow thinks about what returning to England will mean after she has spent a dreadful three-month tour of the continent with Dottie:

I tried to picture primroses, hedgerows, and soft, chilled rain. No more hotels, smoke-filled dining cars, resentful waiters, or searches through unfamiliar cities for just the right tonic water or stomach remedy. No more sweltering days at the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, watching tourists blithely lead their children and snap photographs as if we’d never had a war. No more seeing the names of battlefields on train departure boards and wondering if that one — or that one, or that one — held Alex’s body forgotten somewhere beneath its newly grown grass.

We get grief, hoping for the relief she senses she won’t have, and the endless drudgery she’s suffered the past three months and fears will recur–all of it subtly rendered.

As a first-person narrator, Jo is naturally the deepest character, but her memories of Alex bring him alive, and Dottie comes through in all her hideous glory without being a cartoon. I’m particularly impressed that when Jo receives a terrible shock, she doesn’t immediately do a one-eighty to accommodate the change but fights it, internally and externally, creating tension. So many suspense novelists, or those of any stripe, devote a paragraph, a summation, to “explain” why and how the protagonist must “face facts” and do what they’d never wanted to do. Not here. Call this novel Gothic or whatever you like, but these characters have inner lives. That’s the reason it doesn’t even matter that I guessed what changes were coming; the real surprise is how Jo deals with it, which feels real.

This is why I could swallow Frances’s spectral presence in the story. I would have preferred otherwise, and I believe it was unnecessary — indeed, the mystery element she adds could have come from perfectly uncontrived, utterly earthbound sources. But that’s the author’s style, and she has a wide readership, so she knows better than to listen to me.

However, I do think she overreaches in the last fifty pages, setting up a final confrontation that again is no surprise and whose mechanics are hokey, completely unlike the rest of the novel. To repeat myself, I think St. James could have written the ending another way, so the choice seems more like holding up a banner for her genre than to achieve the desired conclusion. Still, I’m glad I read Lost Among the Living. Maybe you’d like it too.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Murder Jambalaya: King Zeno

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Review: King Zeno, by Nathaniel Rich
FSG, 2018. 386 pp. $28

During the final year of the First World War, three narratives and a hell of a lot of dead bodies converge in New Orleans. The main story line belongs to Isidore (Izzy) Zeno, the best young cornet player no one’s ever heard of, who believes he has a new style of jass, as it’s then called, but can’t get gigs. To make ends meet, he aids a friend who’s a stickup artist, but the risks are far greater than the rewards, and that sort of sideline is destined to cause trouble.

Then there’s Bill Bastrop, a police detective assigned to deal with the stickups but switches to homicide detail when a friend and mentor on the force is killed one night in a setup. That, in turn, leads Bill to probe the rash of ax murders that the dead detective was investigating. However, Bill can barely hold it together, suffering from what would today be called post-traumatic stress from his wartime service. He received a hero’s acclaim, but he knows he’s a coward, and he lives with it every second. How Bill managed to be released from the army with the war still going on is a mystery itself. But suffice to say that he’s miserable, obsessed with breaking a case that will redeem him in his own eyes, for which he neglects the wife he loves.

Finally, there’s Beatrice Vizzini, a widow from an underworld family who wants to leave the “shadow business” and go straight. To that end, she’s managing the effort to build a canal that will split New Orleans in two and, the city fathers hope, restore the port to its erstwhile glory. Her sociopathic son and heir, Giorgio, may have other ideas about her business strategy, and to say he’s a loose cannon is an understatement.

New Orleans shantytown during the war years (courtesy National Library of Medicine via University of Michigan)

Meanwhile, with all that, influenza ravages the city, so plenty happens in King Zeno. Too much, in fact, and it burdens the novel. The three narratives coincide only toward the end, when it takes a fair amount of contrivance to make that junction. The mystery hardly qualifies as a puzzle, for the solution is pretty clear early on, though the bodies keep piling up, in the streets and at the canal excavation site. The Vizzini narrative, easily the weakest of the three because the characters are neither engaging nor sympathetic, could drop out entirely. That would also remove the tendentious, thematic passages in which Rich tries to convince you that the canal is a metaphor that links this narrative to the other two. I don’t see it.

What King Zeno does have going for it is the atmosphere of New Orleans. You get the mosquitoes, the heat, the wealth alongside poverty, the racism, sainted past that was never glorious. The vigorous prose lets you hear the music, too:

Isidore pressed the cornet to his lips and the old chemical combustion — oxygen plus metal times flesh — blew everything else out of his head. He’d heard other players describe performing as a jubilant mindlessness, a physical sensation as ecstatic as sexual euphoria, but that wasn’t quite right. He used his mind too, running through scales the way Mr. Davis at the Waifs’ Home had taught him, calculating fourths and fifths; adding crooks, slurs, and drags; scanning ahead four bars in anticipation; posing and, within milliseconds, resolving questions of harmonic density, chordal patterning, and understructure…

More importantly, the narrative conveys implicitly the crime and corruption that pervade every human interaction, the fear with which African-Americans cope constantly, and the subterfuges they must embrace. For instance, Izzy may not visit his wife, Orleania, except in secret, for she’s a live-in nanny in a white home. Even to try is dangerous, for security guards patrol the streets, looking to abuse people they consider interlopers.

Izzy’s story therefore makes gripping reading, as does Bill’s, often, but only as separate entities. As a whole, King Zeno doesn’t feel like a satisfying literary dish as much as a jambalaya of varied flavors. Some stand out, some I can do without, but they don’t go together.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Who Killed the Duke?: Blood Royal

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Review: Blood Royal, by Eric Jager
Little, Brown, 2014. 316 pp. $29

One cold night in 1407, assassins attack Louis, Duke of Orléans, on a Parisian street and leave his dead, mutilated body in the mud. The news shocks Paris to the core, and no wonder. Louis was not only brother to King Charles VI and one of four richest, most powerful peers of the realm. He was also the de facto king whenever Charles slipped into “fits of madness,” what today would be called schizophrenia. Since those fits happened often and could last months or years, Louis was the king’s right hand as well as his nearest blood relative, which makes his murder an attack on the throne itself. Is this an isolated crime, people wonder, or a prelude to more violence, even civil war?

Blood Royal proves the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. The killers know their man, for they set upon Louis after he makes a regular nocturnal visit to his sister-in-law’s palace. Was he actually sleeping with Queen Isabeau? Could King Charles, in a lucid moment, have decided to kill him in revenge? If so, Charles was one of many cuckolded husbands in Louis’s wake, and though he often got away with it because of the rich gifts he lavished on these men, he was also known to delight in shaming them. A knight from Picardy named Albert de Chauny, for example, swore undying enmity because of an incident that became so infamous that the great nineteenth-century painter Eugène Delacroix memorialized it on canvas.

Delacroix’s painting, The Duke of Orléans Showing His Mistress, 1825 (courtesy Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

But whoever plotted to kill Louis could have had any number of motives. The duke of Orléans was power-hungry and flamboyant in displaying his wealth through absurdly lavish entertainments and vanity building projects. To pay for his excesses, he helped himself to the royal treasury, like as not inflicting new taxes that made him extremely unpopular. So if there was one logical suspect in his murder, there were dozens.

The man tasked with unraveling this intricate, politically volatile mystery is the provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville. This is the part of Blood Royal that I like best, the process of investigation that reveals as much about the time and place as it does about the crime. The witnesses include a cross-section of the populace — a cobbler’s wife, water carriers, barbers, an architect’s wife and daughter, a baker, and so on. By examining their testimony, recorded on a parchment lost for more than two centuries, Jager reconstructs the crime as it unfolds; relates fascinating, relevant sidelights about the witnesses’ professions; decides who answers forthrightly and who are trying too hard to save their skins; and why, with so many onlookers, Guillaume has such trouble identifying the assassins. (Hint: Ordinances regarding the nightly curfew and fire prevention are partly to blame.) Most remarkable, perhaps, is that Guillaume prefers to sweat the details of investigation and rely on logic and observation rather than torture the witnesses, which he could easily have done instead.

Throughout the narrative, Jager shows a vivid grasp of everyday life in fifteenth-century Paris, a city of one hundred thousand people. I particularly like this passage describing the Châtelet, where Guillaume conducts his inquiry:

… legal documents lay piled up throughout the old fortress, stacked on wooden tables and writing desks, sorted onto shelves, cubbyholed in armoires, and stuffed into storerooms, along with the various tools used to make them — goose quills widened and hardened by heat, silver penknives, black-stained ink pots, pumice for smoothing parchment, and polished wooden rulers and shiny metal styli for scoring straight lines across freshly cut sheets of white, virgin calfskin. Whole herds of cows and hillsides full of sheep had been slaughtered and skinned to make these records of human misdeeds, entire flocks of geese had been plucked, and huge numbers of oak galls had been laboriously collected and boiled down to produce barrels of ink.

The unmasking of the murderers comes as a slight anticlimax – history is unkind to dramatic convention, here — but Jager more than makes up for it by recounting what happens afterward. The civil war that ensues offers Henry V of England the chance he’s been waiting for to invade, and the reader quickly learns how gross a propaganda job Shakespeare did to glorify “warlike Harry.” Likewise, the powerful duke of Burgundy, whom history knows as Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless) could as well have been nicknamed Jean sans Scrupules.

I could have done without the “must have felt” that intrudes on the narrative. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m with Barbara Tuchman on this one. If the historical record doesn’t say how someone felt, the historian has no business inventing it; let the reader draw the inference.

But Blood Royal is a fabulous book. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Talking Heads: Impossible Saints

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Review: Impossible Saints, by Clarissa Harwood
Pegasus, 2018. 344 pp. $26

The year is 1907; the place, London. Picture a romance between Lilia Brooke, anticlerical, militant suffragist who believes in “free union” rather than marriage, and Paul Harris, an Anglican canon, and you have the premise of Impossible Saints. What’s more, Paul hates even the idea of a “free union,” because his mother left his father to live with another man. Finally, as a young cleric on a rapid rise, he’d do well to steer clear of Lilia for the sake of his career prospects.

More than four decades ago, I first read George Dangerfield’s classic history of the Edwardian era, The Strange Death of Liberal England, which I highly recommend. I can still recall the hair-raising chapters about Emmeline Pankhurst, arguably the most famous (if not the most influential) suffragist in the English-speaking world, and her daughter, Christabel, both of whom took a great deal of physical and verbal abuse for the cause. (Another daughter, Sylvia, was also involved in the movement.) Lilia Brooke, though fictional, is cut from their cloth, a woman who feels that eloquent speeches and pamphlets aren’t enough, though she excels at both. Rather, she must take her cause to the streets in ways that can’t be ignored, and, like any honest militant, she leads from out front. Consequently, Paul and Lilia have decisions to make.

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

I was delighted to find Harwood’s novel and surprised that it’s the first I’ve ever heard of to portray the suffrage movement in that time and place. I like honest political romances, by which I mean those where both partners are committed, body and soul, to their beliefs, rather than stories in which philosophical differences provide a handy device to keep the lovers apart for a while. I further applaud Harwood’s passion for the era and her understanding and love for the ideas that shaped it. In our politically fractious age, it’s thought-provoking to read about lovers whose undeniable attraction risks foundering on divergent beliefs about morality and justice.

But I wish that Impossible Saints offered a more vivid, nuanced, less predictable narrative. Told almost entirely through dialogue, a choice that demands authorial skill and the reader’s patience, the novel feels like a tract or a running debate.

The discussions have their moments, as when Lilia gently skewers a wealthy businessman and professed Darwinist by asking whether he should hire more women just to see whether they are better fitted to the work than men. More usually, however, speech and thought seem too intellectual, even for the main characters, whose scholarly pursuits led to their initial attraction. Take this passage, for example, where Paul visits a “penitentiary,” a place that purportedly exists to rehabilitate “fallen women”:

Paul had entertained two incompatible expectations of these women — the romantic, sorrowful, lovely unfortunates of Pre-Raphaelite paintings on the one hand, and the gaudy, brash, painted courtesans of legend on the other. Neither expectation was realized. What surprised Paul most was how ordinary and young Mary looked. She couldn’t have been older than seventeen, yet her face was sober and intelligent, reminding him of his father’s upper servants. Was this one of the wicked, abandoned creatures that many of his colleagues spoke out against from the pulpit?

I have no doubt that Harwood’s observations here are dead on, and I believe implicitly that Paul has never considered a woman like this for who she is. But I don’t think he’s really seeing her now, either, for the description feels pigeonholed, generic, even academic, and since it’s a key moment, his reaction should be visceral. I get that he doesn’t reveal his feelings to others, though they run deep, but aside from described internal states, they’re hard to find. As such, I feel sympathy and interest in viewpoints and where those will lead, but am less compelled by the characters who hold them.

There’s little or no external vividness, either. Emmeline Pankhurst, who surely deserves at least a line of physical description, receives none (and neither Christabel nor Sylvia is even mentioned). Impossible Saints has little grounding in any particular place, and neither London nor the early twentieth century comes alive in its pages.

Artless is the word that comes to mind about this novel, in its simplicity, which can be charming, but also in its lack of subtlety or surprise. With apologies to Paul’s profession, so much of this book feels ordained; when anything appears the least out of the ordinary, you can bet it will work its effects in the next chapter or so, and you can guess what they’ll be. Conversations feel direct, to the point, and resolved, and though occasional misunderstandings arise, people seldom, if ever, interrupt or talk past each other.

Impossible Saints is a novel about ideas, less so the people who hold them. And though those ideas are powerful and timely, the narrative never quite takes flight.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Cynical Kingdom: Chicago

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Review: Chicago, by David Mamet
HarperCollins, 2018. 338 pp. $27

“A romantic is just a cynic for whom, as yet, the nickel hasn’t dropped,” says one character to another. Both are newsmen from Chicago’s leading paper, philosophical drunks, and they may be excused their pessimism, for it’s 1925, when underworld gangs struggle for control of the city, and life seems cheap. But these facts are incidental, for this is Mamet land, where corruption pervades every interaction like poison, and the only question is who will succumb next.

The more interesting drunk in this peripatetic, loosely connected novel is Mike Hodge, decorated war veteran, who falls in love, hard, with Annie Walsh. But a thug kills her at Mike’s apartment, for no reason he can figure, and when he’s drunk enough of his visceral grief away, he sets out to find the killer.

Before that happens, however, a lot of hooch flows under the bridge. Though I salute Mamet for letting his protagonist mourn, when so many mysteries take bereavement for granted and have the sleuth pounding the pavement right away, Chicago errs in the other direction. So many conversations take place between Mike and his cynical friends, chiefly his newsroom buddy, Parlow, and an African-American whorehouse madam, Peekaboo, that when they tell him they’ve heard enough about “the Irish girl,” you want to agree. The sleuthing doesn’t start until around page 150, and doesn’t really get going until much later. On their own, many of these scenes work beautifully, especially with Peekaboo, whose take on life and manner of expressing it make her a compelling character. Why, she asks rhetorically, do you think girls fall in love? Her answer is that the man can (choose one or more): “bring me off; buy me shit; protect me and my children; leave me a lot of money.” On hearing this, Mike chuckles dismissively.

But if you didn’t know that Mamet is a playwright, you’d quickly wonder why there’s so much talk, and why every sentence seems to have at least one word in italics, as if the author were giving his players line readings. The staginess doesn’t end there, either, because the narrative has plenty of closeted two- or -threesomes and very few panoramas. Surprisingly, Annie herself appears very little and has no dialogue, except reported as indirect discourse, and even her name seldom occurs: She’s the “Irish girl.” Is she meant to be merely an abstraction? A sex object? It’s a little strange. And do reporters of the city beat really use words like etiolated or debate whether a certain aphorism comes from Tacitus? Maybe these reporters do, since they seem preternaturally attuned and can intuit that someone they’ve just set eyes on carries a shameful secret, and what it must be.

That said, Chicago has its pleasures beyond the rich, colloquial dialogue. Mike’s detective work, once he throws himself into it, is clever, persistent, and courageous. The mystery offers plenty of twists despite having few moving parts. Mamet has a keen sense of the underworld, its codes, gestures, and ways of operation. And though he doesn’t reveal the Tribune newsroom in full — it seems a fairly quiet place, with little furniture, population, or obstacles to private, uninterrupted conversation — he knows old-time newsmen:

Crouch was the city editor, and, like most men dedicated to a cause, he took seriously the signs and trappings of his devotion. These, in his case, were an ancient rumpled suit, a green eyeshade while at work, a Fatima cigarette perennially held between his lips, his eyes screwed up against the smoke, nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, a dirty shirt, and frayed and inkstained cuffs. He was small, usually unshaven, and had looked every day of his fifty-eight years since his accession to the desk in 1913.

But, in the end, Chicago doesn’t hang together as a novel, and I don’t think it would make much of a play, either. I’d hoped for better from a writer I admire.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post was published in shorter, different form.

Rough Injustice: Only Killers and Thieves

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Review: Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth
HarperCollins, 2018. 319 pp. $27

It’s 1885, and Billy and Tommy McBride, Australian teenagers in a drought-ridden wilderness, have grown up within the confines of their family’s failing cattle ranch. They’ve met few people other than their parents, younger sister, and hired hands, and they’ve felt themselves secure within that society. So when the boys return home one afternoon following a rare moment of leisure, an excursion to a swimming hole, they see that they are bereft beyond their imagining. Someone has murdered their parents, gravely wounded their sister, and even killed the dogs.

Suspicion immediately falls on a former Aboriginal hired hand who’d left the McBrides’ employ under a cloud, and whose distinctive pistol is found at the scene. At least, sixteen-year-old Billy’s convinced of the man’s guilt, precisely what the McBrides’ wealthy neighbor, John Sullivan, wants to hear. He’s a rancher who seems to own everything and everyone, hates anyone who’s not white, and anyone of any race who doesn’t pledge him fealty, which he calls “respect.” Sullivan hires a police officer and his Aboriginal troops to hunt down the killer, and he insists that both boys come along. But Tommy, almost fifteen and forever in his older brother’s shadow, isn’t so sure. He mistrusts Sullivan, with whom his father never got along, and, unlike his older brother, wants to know the how and why of things.

I like this facet of the novel very much, how the interplay between the brothers sets so much into motion. Billy, pigheaded and more terrified than he’s willing to admit, accepts all he’s told as the only choice and refuses to ask questions — sometimes the obvious ones. After all, the McBride boys are orphans, and as minors, they have no rights to hold their deceased parents’ property. Tommy acquiesces because he can’t exist on his own, idealizes Billy, and wants just as much to be accepted. Yet he keeps a skeptical mind about what doesn’t make sense, including details of the murder that don’t add up. And he tries to ask questions, only to be shouted down or threatened.

But Howarth is after bigger game than sibling rivalry, however deadly it may turn. He aims to explore how murder — what today would be called genocide — can happen, and how decent people can subscribe to it. So far, so good, but I wish the author hadn’t stacked the deck. Sullivan speaks and acts the way I imagine such a man might, yet his villainy and lust for power seem too grand and without nuance. (There’s also a Freudian cliché employed to explain why he throws his weight around, but it’s too cheap by half.) Far more interesting, and complex, is Noone, the police officer Sullivan hires.

At first, Noone cultivates Tommy, whom he senses has an astute, roving intelligence like his own. To Tommy’s surprise, Noone even answers questions about Sullivan’s questionable activities, the boy having assumed that the two men trust one another, if they’re not actually friends. But Tommy soon learns that Noone trusts no one and has no human feeling as the boy (and just about anyone) would define it. Noone’s a thinker, a theoretical follower of Darwin who’s twisted “survival of the fittest” to his murderous agenda. His kind is timeless; call him proto-fascist, white supremacist, sociopath, or all three.

One of the pleasures of Only Killers and Thieves is the way Howarth’s prose brings out the struggle for survival, the isolation, the loneliness of this hardscrabble patch of earth. Consider this passage, when Tommy and his mother drive to the nearest town:

The dray rattled along, Mother holding her hat against the wind, Tommy squinting into the glare, both of them grimacing at the ride. There was no give in the axle. Every rock and divot jarred through the bench. Before them the road stretched straight and narrow, little more than a horse track beaten through the bush, but the only road Bewley had. It ran through the center of town and continued east for hundreds of miles, supposedly to the mountains then the coast and an ocean so big it covered half the earth. Tommy could hardly imagine it. But then the same could be said of the interior, which no man had ever crossed; must have been the size of an ocean at least. The thought made him woozy: the scale of it all, what lay out there, the world.

Only Killers and Thieves lives up to its title, a grisly, powerful, unflinching book, the type you don’t want to put down but fear to pick up once you have because of what might happen next. After a taut, laconic narrative, however, the climax gets talky, with Noone spewing stuff that seems pulled out of Nietzsche, irrelevant and redundant. The entire dénouement, in fact, feels stilted and arranged.

But Only Killers and Thieves is a brilliant novel, more remarkable for being Howarth’s first. I think he’s an author to watch.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post was published in shorter, different form.

When Pretty Prose Isn’t Enough: Varina

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Review: Varina, by Charles Frazier
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018. 341 pp. $28

The title character of this novel observes in 1865, “Civilization balances always on a keen and precarious point, a showman spinning a fine Spode dinner plate on a long dowel slender as a stem of hay. A puff of breath, a moment’s lost attention, and it’s all gone, crashed to ruination, shards in the dirt.”

Varina Howell Davis knows whereof she speaks. Not only has she seen her native South provoke a catastrophic civil war, her husband has led the charge as president of the Confederacy. Even when the cause rides high, she can’t go anywhere without hearing vicious gossip about herself and Jeff, which becomes ever more strident as defeat looms. Personal tragedy dogs her as well; most of their children die very young, leaving her perpetually in mourning, and her marriage has been a disaster from the first. As the barely eighteen-year-old bride to a much older, widower husband, Varina doesn’t reckon on his cold stubbornness, his political ambitions, habit of breaking promises, financial chicanery, or abiding obsession with his late wife. Not all of this is Varina’s naïveté, however. Her father, having lost his fortune to speculation, tosses her into the hands of a relative who browbeats the women who make up his household. Consequently, Jeff Davis offers freedom, she thinks, an irony that underlies the entire narrative.

Studio portrait of Varina Davis, 1860s (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

All this turmoil might provide drama enough for three novels, but the astonishing thing about Varina is that it fails to add up even to one. Frazier has grounded his tale in 1906, when Varina is living in Saratoga, New York, at a hotel-cum-therapy establishment, and a figure from her distant past drops in. This is James Blake, whom Varina adopted off a Richmond street during the war, and who has tracked her down to try to piece together the fragments of his early life. His Sunday visits prompt her recollections, which spin the narrative of her life as well.

I dislike this way of telling stories, which seems unnatural and forced–“let me now recount my life”–yet there’s something here that commands attention. James is black, though light-skinned, whereas Varina is dark-complected, which has opened her to ridicule and prejudice throughout her life in the South. James is therefore the prime mover and Varina’s conscience on racial attitudes, a brilliant thematic setup.

Unfortunately, it falls flat. The retrospective narrative jumps around incessantly, as you would expect an oral memoir to do, and the myriad episodes don’t hang together. Frazier creates several marvelous vignettes, introducing, among others, Franklin Pierce, Zachary Taylor, Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, and Varina’s good friend and famous diarist, the warm, ebullient Mary Chesnut. But there’s no plot to speak of; no urgent question to answer; no secrets to unravel; and therefore no climax. Sometimes there’s tension, but more often not, for the vignettes, though sometimes interesting, seldom engage you emotionally. Frazier relies on Varina’s moral pronouncements and his ability to set a scene, both of which he expresses in imagery that, at its best, leaps off the page.

But does that equal a novel, or at least, a good novel? I say no, especially because Varina is the only character of any depth. She’s a terrific tragic figure, possessing remarkable strength and heartfelt eloquence (if, at odd moments, she sounds like a psychotherapist). But James remains a vague character, part stage prompter, part Greek chorus. You see Jeff’s flaws out loud, but the rest of him remains abstract; and if there was ever a complicated leader, it was Jefferson Davis — who, in reality, sought a battlefield command rather than political leadership. Frazier notes that he enjoys combat — Davis attended West Point, after all — but doesn’t show why.

Frazier’s historical perspective mystifies me too. He re-creates the Confederacy’s collapse with verve and frightening detail, but the tone and certain aspects of the story rest on a pretense or a misconception, whichever you prefer to call it. The way Frazier tells it, why, practically nobody in the Confederacy except a few hardheads like Jeff thought that warring against the North was a good idea, which they somehow managed to sell to a credulous populace.

What nonsense. Frazier himself makes clear that the South kept fighting, despite taking terrible punishment, and there were many men who did not desert. Moreover, to suggest that a few misguided souls brought on the Civil War idealizes the Confederacy as a place where fire-eating secession was an anomaly, while also selling short the people who suffered for it. It’s as if nobody back then had any convictions of their own, so were easily manipulated. I can’t stand that implication, which invites us to look down on nineteenth-century Americans as less intelligent than we, less capable of moral reasoning. Hindsight comes in handy, doesn’t it?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review.

Blood and Moonshine: Gods of Howl Mountain

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In the autumn of 1952, with “I Like Ike” signs sprouting in the North Carolina lowlands, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Maybelline Docherty is her own authority, thank you. Known as Granny May, like most mountain folk thereabouts, she’s had a hard life. Her husband died young in the First World War; their daughter lives in an institution and hasn’t spoken in twenty-odd years; and Granny May’s grandson, Rory, lost part of a leg fighting with the Marines in Korea and has been drifting and moody ever since. But Granny May doesn’t know the meaning of the word surrender, and she intends to continue enjoying life to the fullest. As a former prostitute, she makes polite folk turn away. But they still drive up the mountain for her herbal remedies, which they fear as possibly un-Christian yet wish to believe in, and she’s famous for her cakes.

The Blue Ridge Mountains, as seen from Blowing Rock, North Carolina (courtesy I, Zainubrazvi, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rory troubles her, however. He earns a good living running moonshine to buyers off the mountain, which puts him in the crosshairs of the police, who can sometimes be bribed. But there’s a new Federal revenue agent in town who plays by different rules, and as Rory soon learns, he’s a sadist of the first order. Meanwhile, Rory feuds with Cooley Muldoon, a young buck with more swagger than brains who’s willing to match Rory blow for blow, and whose father owns the largest piece of the moonshine business. Between these two threats and an attraction for a preacher’s daughter who handles venomous snakes as part of the church service, Rory has chosen to live dangerously. But Granny May says, “Christ’s father let him die on that cross.… But Christ never had no Granny like me.”

In my review of Fallen Land, Brown’s previous book, I loved the prose and the pacing but faulted the too-easily resolved conflicts between the main characters and the intellectually sophisticated observations that came from the mouths of unschooled teenagers. Not here. Gods of Howl Mountain is a much better, more complex, more believable novel, and its power propels you through the narrative, much like the engine in Rory’s beloved souped-up muscle car, named (of course) Maybelline. Rory and Granny May are compelling characters, their dialogue credible, and often a hoot besides.

Once or twice, you may come across a reference to something you might not expect, or said in a way that seems out of character, but those instances don’t intrude. If there’s a weak link, it’s Cooley Muldoon, the villain, who’s got nothing to recommend him and is simply villainous. He’s relentless, though, and very inventive, so nothing will be easily resolved, you can bank on that. Granny May’s traumatized daughter, Bonni, seems idealized, as though Rory’s view of her is actually accurate. I also wonder whether Bonni’s silence is too convenient, being essential to the plot. Rory has undertaken to find out exactly what renders her speechless, and who’s responsible. I like that part of the narrative, but I think it might have worked better had the story not turned on that device.

The prose, however, needs no qualifiers, and it’s the first thing that strikes you about Gods of Howl Mountain:

[Granny May] squinted down her nose, eyeing the tree in the yard. This tree, lone survivor of the blight, stood a centerpiece of all she surveyed from her porch. The others of its kind, chestnuts, had once covered these mountains, the bark of their trunks deeply furrowed, age-twisted like the strands of giant steel cables. Their leaves sawtoothed, golden this time of year, when the falling nuts fattened the beasts of the land, sweetening their meat. That army of hardwoods had fallen, victims of death-black cankers that starved and toppled them. Some exotic fungus had slipped in through wounds in their bark, the work of antlers or claws or penknives. This tree stood alone in the meadow, crowned high against the impending light.
A spirit tree.

This is Granny May’s first appearance, and it’s as though she were that tree, unblighted, standing tall, determined to live her way, from the land and part of it.

With Gods of Howl Mountain, Brown has gone a big step further from the promise revealed in Fallen Land, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The Limit of Good Intentions: Hour Glass

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Review: Hour Glass, by Michelle Rene
Amberjack, 2018. 292 pp. $15

The Black Hills of South Dakota are no place for two children to fend for themselves, especially in August 1876, barely a month after Little Bighorn. But that’s the trouble that twelve-year-old Jimmy Glass, and his six-year-old half-sister, Flower, face when their father, their only parent, catches smallpox. Jimmy doesn’t know what ails his Pa, but it looks serious. It’s up to them to find a doctor, so the two manage to load Pa into a wagon, for which they have no horse, and sweat the contraption into Deadwood, the nearest town.

Deadwood exists because of the gold strike in the Black Hills, and the miners’ presence defies Federal law, which had supposedly kept “settlers” out of Sioux territory. So Deadwood isn’t merely a garden-variety frontier brothel-and-casino town, but one with defiant vengeance in its bones. And, it should be said, Flower is a potential target, as half Lakota Sioux and developmentally different — she doesn’t speak, won’t look people in the eye, and hates to be touched. When asked to say her name, the best she can reply is Ower. That becomes Hour; hence the title.

C. E. Finn’s 1880s photograph of Calamity Jane (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The relationship between the protective older brother and the emotionally inexpressive sister offers a twist on a familiar theme: Innocent children melt hard, greedy hearts. What’s more, who else should take the besieged children under her wing than Calamity Jane, as colorful a figure as you could want? She drinks like ten fish, curses like a sailor, but shoots straight, rides hard, and takes no guff from any man. In fact, on first meeting, Jimmy is convinced she is a man, a whisper of the feminist theme that pervades the novel:

Her skin was tanned and leathery, and she wore the uniform of a pioneer. If she had any bit of femininity about her shape, it was hidden beneath the layers of buckskin. Her hat was a man’s hat, worn from use, ornamented with Indian feathers. Everything about her had read ‘man’ until she pulled away that bandana to show the more delicate features of a woman’s mouth. Her crystal-blue eyes glared down at me as I froze in place.

Through Jane’s good offices, Pa Glass is put in quarantine with other smallpox victims, where she tends him herself. Dora DuFran, the madam of Diddlin’ Dora’s (no lie), takes in the children, who immediately become the pets of the house. But for me, the chief charm of Hour Glass is how Jimmy treats his little sister and does his best to look out for her. We’d all be proud of a son like him, sensitive, empathic, trying his best to play the man’s role he’s been thrust into when he knows he’s still a child. Jimmy also has a preternatural gift for peacemaking, and it’s hard not to like that too.

But it’s equally hard to figure out how he gained such self-knowledge and skills, for, like much else in Hour Glass, they just seem to fall out of the sky. How indeed would a young boy born to tragedy, likely having no playmates and only one parent who is probably too busy to spend much time on him, seem so fully formed in self-concept and so talented socially? To me, this is the sort of novel that works while you’re reading it, because you’re caught up in adventure after adventure. But after you put it down, you think, No.

None of the good guys ever does anything really bad, and there are no villains, only an occasional badass. Disagreements never leave lingering resentments or even change the course of the story. Though each chapter moves well, once the episode is done, it’s on to the next, with very little reflection. For instance, despite the feminism and good-heartedness that inform this novel, Jimmy never reckons with what a brothel is, or what it must be like to work there. His notions of sex are formed enough to make him draw back in horror at the notion that his sister might be condemned to that life one day. Yet he never connects his fear to the women he sees, which allows him to have unalloyed gratitude toward Dora, who’s profiting off them.

I’m glad Jimmy and his sister get taken care of — nobody wants to see kids suffer — yet I also want them to struggle, to face more prejudice and suspicion than they do, to get into fixes that even Calamity Jane can’t rescue them from. I can’t help think that not only does the author try too hard to protect her characters, pulling back from her strong premise, she has superimposed a twenty-first-century sensibility on a nineteenth-century narrative. Unfortunately, her choice of language sometimes suggests as much, as when her characters use words or phrases like backlash, fine with it, or best-case scenario.

Late in the novel, Jane remarks of her own legend spinning that “folks don’t want real stories.” Maybe not, but the lies have to seem like truth.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Spy Family: Paris Spring

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Review: Paris Spring, by James Naughtie
Overlook, 2016. 320 pp. $27

Will Flemyng, who works undercover for the British Embassy in Paris, is accosted on the métro by an East German agent named Kristof. At first, Will wonders whether Kristof is willing to trade information or change sides, and since it’s April 1968, and talk of democracy in Prague has the Soviet bloc on edge, Kristof’s sudden appearance offers possibilities.

Or does it? A subsequent rendezvous turns testy when Kristof threatens to expose Will’s brother, Abel, who spies for the United States, as a traitor. Will refuses to believe him or be bullied. But he also keeps his own counsel, because this is family, and the Flemyngs are close, matter of state or no. So Will doesn’t tell his boss, Freddy Craven, all he should, and there too lie emotional ties. Freddy’s like a father to Will, an older man in ill health who’s shown him the ropes of tradecraft, and for whom Will would risk anything.

Meanwhile, the student population has fomented rebellion, and the streets are boiling. The embassy is expected to watch these events carefully, and in return, with so much focus on Paris, any diplomatic mistake will quickly become public knowledge. Freddy, like any sensitive soul, realizes something’s up with Will, but he doesn’t know what. A love affair that ended a few months before? The tensions of the job? But before that question can be resolved, Grace Quincy, a world-famous journalist who could pry secrets from a clam without having to open it, blows into Paris. Will, knowing that Grace is trouble and that her flirtatious attentions mean she’s digging for information, nevertheless invites her over. But before that happens, she’s murdered at Père-Lachaise cemetery, of all places, and the police quickly learn that Will’s name is on her dance card. It’s obvious that one side or other had her killed, for reasons of espionage, but who, and why?

Pierre_Mendès_France, the Socialist politician who had helped extricate France from Vietnam, was willing to form a coalition government in May 1968 and listen to the student demands. But the Gaullists increased their power in the next election (courtesy Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Naughtie excels at portraying Paris under siege and the student protests:

. . .the canteen in the student building was filled with a rolling crowd and had the air of a cavernous bar in the early hours, a dance hall with the lights down. There was a group in one corner listening to a guitar, some of them flat out on the floor, and across the room an argument was threatening to turn into a struggle. Somebody ran shouting from the room. At least five people were handing out newspapers and campaign sheets at the door, one of them wearing a Mao cap, the others in black.…Someone was cooking oil. A few on the floor looked as if they’d slept there for days and the place looked like a school gymnasium on a wet afternoon. They’d rigged up an urn to boil water for coffee, and people were pulling stale bread rolls from a cardboard box. Someone had brought in a cat, which sat on top of the jukebox with its tail rigid in the air and its eyes wide.

But good as that is, it’s just the vivid background. The real story involves two families. First, it’s the Flemyngs, and how the brothers balance their feelings and ties against the secrecy demanded by their work, which affects a third, older brother, Mungo. Until reading Paris Spring, I didn’t know I wanted an older brother named Mungo, but it helps that this one is supportive, caring, and paternal, without being pushy or controlling, the family mediator. Mungo comes to know Freddy as well, so there’s plenty of warmth to go around in this coldest of cold-blooded professions.

The other family consists of Will’s allies, foremost among them Freddy, of course, but also others encountered during his travails over Kristof. Rivalries exist, to be sure, but even as temporary friends, they stick together. They know better than anyone else what the power of secrets can do, especially those that may or may not exist, except in rumor. As Freddy tells Mungo, who’s a historian, “You warn your students of the fog of war. Well, I know it to be real. I breathe the fumes.”

Naughtie’s grasp of spydom as a brethren echoes John le Carré, and the same could be said of his focus on characterization. Paris Spring fails to emulate the master in that it resolves with a couple turns that may be too neat; another neatness is how indulgent Freddy is with Will, which strains credulity at times. Nevertheless, Paris Spring is an excellent thriller, elegant in the way le Carré’s are — as few moving narrative parts as possible, a focus on motive instead, and characters who believe in what they’re doing. Bravo.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.