For Whose Glory?: Cathedral

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Review: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins
Europa, 2021. 618 pp. $28

In 1229, nineteen-year-old Reichard Schäffer’s father dies, leaving him the head of the family in a quiet, out-of-the-way sheep herding village. Deciding that serfdom and sheep no longer suit him, the boy, known as Rettich, leaves his village with his younger brother, Emmerich, for Hagenburg, the (fictional) Alsatian town that gleams like a marvel in their eyes. It’s anything but, of course, but both boys will understand its depths and complexities in time, though from very different perspectives.

Right off, Rettich seeks to buy their freedom so that they may remain city-dwellers, a reminder that in thirteenth-century Europe, birth determines not only who you are and what profession you may follow, but where you may live. What Rettich desires is nothing less than revolutionary, and people who hear his plan shake their heads. But one person who listens is Meir Rosenheim, the Jewish moneylender, to whom the Schäffers appeal for the ready coin they need. Serfs normally wouldn’t prove worthy debtors, but Meir perceives something in them that decides him to take a chance, and besides, Emmerich’s remarkable capacity to calculate intrigues him. Rettich gets his money; the boys buy their freedom; and Emmerich has a job with the house of Rosenheim.

Théophile Schuler’s reimagining, in 1850, of the construction of the western wall of the Strasbourg cathedral, late thirteenth century (courtesy Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg, Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From such small beginnings great things emerge. Rettich, a gifted woodcarver, earns an apprenticeship to the stonecutters working on the Hagenburg Cathedral, very much in its infancy. Emmerich learns how to handle money and proves himself an astute businessman. From them, and the many characters that come in contact with them, spins a beautifully imagined tale of greed, politics, skullduggery, sex, bigotry, and piety, often in mystical terms. As this order of importance implies, for most of Hagenburg, building a cathedral is a religious enterprise in name only. Rettich is an exception.

But he can’t say so, at least not in the way he would like, because nobody would listen. As an artist, he believes in reproducing figures from nature, a heretical notion, especially when it comes to cathedral artwork. He does find an outlet for discussion with an architect, a true visionary, whose views are equally controversial. But change is in the air. Witness Emmerich, who learns banking—though it’s not called that—and the power that money wields in politics, when noblemen are perennially short of cash. They fear and despise him but know he’s absolutely necessary.

Both brothers embody a strain of the coming Renaissance that no one foresees—and so does their sister, Grete. She marries up, to a struggling merchant in town, of whom she quickly proves the equal. Naturally, that makes him uncomfortable, but the results speak for themselves. And Grete thinks large. She works toward the day when money will allow people of her social class—her new, acquired social class–to have a say in how things get done, elbowing her way among the aristocracy. This avant-garde feminist attempts to break several barriers, and the manner in which she goes about it makes all three siblings’ stories compelling.

Inwardly, outwardly, and sometimes both, these characters and others act with great daring. Those among the large cast who can afford to—and a few who shouldn’t—speak their minds freely, which lends the narrative zest and fire. The novel’s resident cynic is Eugenius von Zabern, a church canon and the bishop’s secretary, who has the unenviable task of finding money to build the cathedral:

The world needs clerks and lawyers in the same way as it needs leprosy, plagues, earthquakes. Without them, life would be a colourless stroll toward death. But here they are, proliferating and multiplying over the face of our earth, and taking ever more prominent positions in the chambers of power. In the olden days, virtuous rulers would surround their thrones with the flower of chivalry, but today the leaders of our world are ringed by advisers, counsellors, clerks and Jews.
I should know. I am one of this new cursèd class of quill-scratching, shadow-skulking literati. . .

Reading such prose is one delight of Cathedral, and though there’s a lot of it, I find nothing extraneous. Scenes move smartly, and the dialogue clips along, perhaps testament to Hopkins’s career as a screenwriter and director. I also admire his grasp of historical detail. Whether describing Hagenburg (a character in itself), the glimmers of change and how people react to it, or endemic belief in conspiracy theories, especially about heretics or Jews, Hopkins renders time and place with complete authority. I defy anyone to start this book and put it down.

Cathedral is a masterpiece.

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

Class Warfare in Spokane: The Cold Millions

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Review: The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter
Harper, 2020. 337 pp. $29

Spokane, Washington, in 1909 makes a volatile mixture. Some townspeople get by, a few live in luxury, while a vast army of loggers, miners, prostitutes, and hobos struggles to exist. Into that cauldron leaps the I.W.W., the International Workers of the World, known as Wobblies, whose stated goal is to organize workers into a union that capital must recognize, and to do so without violence. For that, they are called anarchists, revolutionaries, subversives, and agitators, chiefly at the behest of Spokane’s wealthiest citizens, who own the mines, logging companies, real estate, flophouses, saloons, and brothels. But the Wobblies won’t back down and have planned a Free Speech demonstration; the local constabulary, corrupt to the core, will be ready.

Before that happens, however, a policeman is killed, and suspicion immediately falls on the migrant workers, tramps, and other “undesirables” who’ve floated into town. But the newcomers, among whom are sixteen-year-old Ryan (Rye) Dolan and his older brother Gregory (Gig), don’t know this yet. In fact, they know very little of what’s in store:

They woke on a ball field — bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Seasonal work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps, filled every flop and boardinghouse, slept in parks and alleys in the pavilions of traveling preachers and, on the night just past, this abandoned ball field, its infield littered with itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans.

Gig’s a Wobbly (and a drunk), while Rye devotes himself to one cause, trying to keep his older brother out of trouble. Pigs will fly before he succeeds. And even after a violent confrontation with vigilantes who offer them the choice between getting flung in the river or a broken head, the brothers have seen nothing yet. After all, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn will come to lead the Free Speech demonstration.

Joe Hill wrote this song about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1915 (courtesy NYU Library via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Perhaps the most famous labor organizer in America at that time, Flynn, as Walter portrays her, is about the best stump speaker this side of Teddy Roosevelt and more than a match for any man foolish enough to debate her. But even the Wobblies’ labor allies wonder what a pretty, pregnant, nineteen-year-old “girl” is doing (a) away from her husband, and (b) speaking to workingmen, often in terms no modest wife would ever utter, even in private. The Dolan boys are smitten, especially Rye. I don’t blame him one bit.

With exceptional economy, prose, and storytelling punch, Walter justifies his considerable reputation with The Cold Millions. The narrative reads like a thriller about labor strife, with “no — and furthermore” thriving everywhere. Life’s a fight to the finish, and so much wrong blankets the landscape, you seldom know where right is hiding itself, let alone how to act accordingly. In other words, the novel captures the divisions and desperation of a bygone era that seem remarkably like the present.

Flynn is pure electricity, and you can see the sparks; the novel crackles whenever she appears. The Dolan brothers represent Everyman, men who’ve had hard luck and want only a fair chance to improve it. But as Ryan observes, “Hell, it took only your first day in a Montana flop or standing over your mother’s unmarked grave to know that equal was the one thing all men were not. A few lived like kings, and the rest hugged the dirt until it cracked open and took them home.”

What powerful stuff, and Walter deals it straight. There’s no sugarcoating, only an occasional kindness or flash of decency. Sometimes, you can tell the good guys and bad guys apart too easily, yet in the author’s defense, the stakes are such that there’s no straddling allowed. I do wish that Rye had more flaws; he makes mistakes, but usually out of naïveté, which he does his best to address. You pull for him, but I want to do so not just because he’s a trusting innocent. I want him to struggle more with evil instead of skirting it by instinct. I also get impatient with digressions into the backgrounds of minor characters, a few of whom wind up dead shortly thereafter, which feels unfair to the reader. Yet I’ll give Walter credit for insisting on fleshing everybody out, even if the back story becomes intrusive.

There’s also no arguing with the overall effect, which is breathtaking. Walter captures a time, place, and mindset with such brilliance, he makes it look easy. And as a fellow Washingtonian, I salute his effort to portray the Wobblies, who left their mark on the Pacific Northwest a century ago and more.

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

Convict Ship: Dangerous Women

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Review: Dangerous Women, by Hope Adams
Berkeley, 2021. 320 pp. $26

The Rajah sets sail from London in 1841 with one hundred eighty women on board, all convicted of crimes bearing the punishment of transportation. In what’s widely seen as great mercy, they’ll get a chance to redeem themselves in Australia. The modern reader considers that and wonders what kind of society banishes people for petty thievery; Adams wants us to see that irony.

Not that these convicts are easy to like. They’re a rough lot, most of them, cynical about the world that has given them the back of its hand and the men who run it, with good reason. Combative, hard, and schooled not to show tender feeling, they expect cruelty and can dish it out. And indeed one does, for a woman is stabbed, and as she lies comatose, her life in the balance, wheels turn.

Augustus Earle’s watercolor, ca. 1826, of a so-called penitentiary factory, where transported women worked and/or were kept imprisoned until further assignment, and where free women also labored (courtesy National Library of Australia via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Captain Ferguson decides that before the Rajah reaches Van Diemen’s Land, the attacker’s identity must be found. To assist him, he has Mr. Davies, a clergyman; Mr. Donovan, a naval surgeon; and Kezia Hayter, a proper middle-class woman who serves as matron for the women aboard, and through whose eyes Adams tells much of the narrative.

Kezia had always thought of Hell as a place of leaping fire and demons with pitchforks, but the first time she’d entered a prison, she’d changed her mind. The damp, squalid cells in Millbank Prison, where women cried out and uttered obscene words, where there was no bright color, only gray and brown and black, that had seemed a new kind of Hell, the opposite of everything that was pleasant and good. The sunshine, when it found a way through the high, grimy windows, had cast no more than a pale glimmer on floors filthy with dropped food, spilled slop buckets and rat droppings. What light there was illuminated tear-streaked cheeks, lank hair and eyes full of grief.

From the get-go, Davies, who looks down on women in general and female convicts most of all, wonders why Kezia even has an opinion about the inquiry or why she should be allowed to express it. Donovan and Ferguson, pointing out her knowledge of the women, seem more thoughtful and accepting — rather too much, I think — but for most of the novel, it hardly matters. All the women questioned give the same account of the stabbing, and the investigators uncover little they didn’t already know.

Nothing like a shipboard murder — or murder attempt — to propel a narrative, and among women who’ve led desperate lives and have no idea what awaits them in Australia, there’s much potential for tension. Kezia has also come aboard with a mission: to select enough capable needlewomen among the convicts to make a quilt. She hopes that producing a work of beauty will uplift her charges, and that communal labor (accompanied by hymns) will lead them on a more righteous path.

However, despite the possibilities, Dangerous Women founders, maybe because Adams tries to do too much. She wants us to know, in detail, how the women come to be there, and how the legal system discriminates against the poor, women worst of all. Fair enough. But these biographies neither advance the plot nor create much tension; they’re often intriguing, but no more than that, and sometimes rely too heavily on interior monologue. That makes me wonder whether pieces of that information, and certainly the themes and attitudes depicted, could have been replicated on board ship, skipping much of the back story.

Rather, to accommodate these women’s histories, the narrative keeps cutting away from the present, the tried-and-true diversion to create tension, but which here proves false, merely annoying. The mystery plot, which begins with such promise, loses steam and never really recovers. I get the impression that Adams cares more about the quilt and the women’s pasts. But if so, why have the mystery at all? It only sets up expectations that a hasty, convenient confession toward the end does little to satisfy, a trite convention unworthy of such a premise.

I’d have liked Dangerous Women better had the novel concentrated on two or three characters, deepened them, intertwined their shipboard lives, and played out the mystery concurrent with revelations about the past. All the suspects have every reason to mistrust their fellows and the law. Had Kezia assumed a more active (or effective) role as sleuth, admittedly difficult for a Victorian woman who takes her religion neat—but nevertheless possible given her character—she’d have discovered truths about the women’s lives. That would have given her the chance to wrestle with more challenges, let her grow more fully.

As it is, Adams focuses on Kezia’s own reasons for wishing to leave England and her struggle to make her voice heard as a woman. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that limitation holds back the narrative, which never rises above an occasionally enlightening window on poor women’s lives in mid-nineteenth century England. The novel could have offered so much more.

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

Wandering Minstrel: Billy Gashade

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Review: Billy Gashade, by Loren D. Estleman
Forge, 1997. 351 pp. $12

One broiling day in July 1863, a sixteen-year-old Manhattan youth wanders into riots sparked by Irish workingmen angry at Lincoln’s new conscription law. Pushed by corrupt politicians, they nevertheless have a serious gripe. Men with three hundred dollars to spare may pay for a replacement if their name is drawn; everyone else must serve in the Union Army. This injustice should have no immediate bearing on our teenage interloper, not yet of military age and born to a sheltered existence as the son of a prosperous judge. But for the first time in his life, he steps forward into the breach and uses his soft, musician’s hands to stand up for someone else.

For his trouble, he earns a wicked concussion. A brothel madam takes the boy in, and when the grateful convalescent manages to restore and play the house’s damaged piano, he makes friends. He’ll need them, because there’s now a price on his head—during the riot, he wounded an ally of the infamous, powerful Boss Tweed, and getting out of town is the only answer. Taking the name Billy Gashade, he goes west.

Jesse James as a young man, undated, photographer unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Billy gets a job playing piano in another brothel, this one in Lawrence, Kansas, where he again winds up in a melee, this one between Federal forces and rebel militia. But though violence shapes much of Billy’s story, and its misuses and lust for it furnish key themes, the narrative really describes the character of the Old West, and the difference between the romantic legends and the truth, as Billy sees it. And he witnesses much firsthand, for he makes the acquaintance of many well-known figures, most particularly Jesse and Frank James, but also Jim Bridger, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, and a raft of others. However, Estleman properly resists the temptation to let Billy witness the best-known scenes (the Last Stand, for instance), which would have twisted the story into a pretzel; the author knows how to make first-rate drama out of less iconic material. This narrative, though with plot aplenty, gets its drive from character.

Billy Gashade is a yarn par excellence, yet it’s more than that, continually pointing out the differences between haves and have-nots in the eyes of their fellow creatures and the “law,” like as not a corrupt, blunt instrument. Billy’s music seems the only voice of peace and understanding, and the locales in which he plies his art are beautifully conveyed. Depicting those circumstances is one way the narrative takes a bristle brush to the sheen of romance, scuffing it mightily. The Kansas sections in particular revise notions about which side has the moral high ground, abolitionist or proslavery, for the warriors fighting for each are murdering scum. Estleman forces us to take a harder look at the received wisdom we’ve been handed about the Civil War, always a useful exercise.

The author tells his tale in retrospect from 1935, a technique I’ve never liked, but it doesn’t intrude here, because only the very beginning and end take place then. The beginning sets Billy up as the man who’s seen it all and establishes his authority, as reliable narrator and a voice you want to listen to. The story also contains as many coincidences as any three Dickens novels combined, but I don’t mind; often, I’m just as happy to meet old friends as Billy is.

But it’s not just the ride through Billy’s life that leads you on. It’s that irresistible voice:

I have ever been curious, an incurable affliction and nearly always personally disastrous. When I was five I climbed by means of a construction of ottomans, pillows, and the works of Sir Walter Scott to the top of an eighteenth-century chifforobe in my parents’ bedroom, only to burn my hand badly in the pretty blue flame of the gas jet that had inspired the ascent. Alas, it was not a learning experience. As many times since then as my Need to Know a Thing has landed me in foul soup, I would in my present extremity sooner chase a siren than dine on pheasant. In 1863 I nearly died of this condition.

At times, however, I feel that Estleman has replaced one romantic view with another. I don’t find Confederate guerrillas-turned-bank robbers appealing in either guise, so Jesse James repels me. I’ll grant that Billy’s quip about James’s gift for singing is one of the best lines in the book: “I’ve always believed that the world lost a good tenor when Jesse James took to robbing stages instead of appearing on them.” To an extent, Estleman’s trying to tell us our romantic heroes don’t deserve our admiration. Yet Billy’s fond of James and worries that the law will get him, though he knows better than most people what the man has done.

Still, Billy Gashade has much to offer. The wandering minstrel’s travels provide wit, humor, and an education, a tale you can wade into with gusto, and a vision of the Old West you might not find anywhere else.

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

Create Expectations: Martin Dressler

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Review: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser
Random House, 1996. 293 pp. $17

Martin Dressler is nine years old in 1881, when he has his first business idea, to dress the window of his father’s Manhattan tobacco shop in a distinctive way. The boy works hard for the shop and has for several years; the Dresslers are dour German immigrants to whom work and thrift come naturally. Pleasure, affection, or satisfaction have no place, suspect as the harbingers of ruin.

From these humble beginnings, Martin makes his way in the New York in the 1890s, earning astonishing success, even as a teenager. Through clever anticipation of customers’ wants, constant willingness to revise his approach, and an innate grasp of what constitutes service, young Martin constructs an empire. He learns how to tap into expectations and, later, to create them.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building on Manhattan’s Park Row, which opened in 1890, was the city’s tallest at the time (undated image, but older than 1920, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Millhauser excels at presenting New York, a city under rapid expansion, so that it appears almost like a child learning to walk and talk, and from whom we anticipate great things. Everyone has an idea, it seems, as though entrepreneurs stand on every corner, awaiting their chance at the big time. Consequently, though Martin may seem larger than life, he fits right in, except that he thinks more boldly than most.

He personifies several themes, one of which involves fascination with modern technology, which promises to make daily life easier, alongside a contradictory desire to remain in the past, anchored to what people already know. Accordingly, architecture and decorative styles figure heavily, and the author details them down to the smallest brick. His people hunger for the newness and their ability to possess it, yet fear what they might have lost, leaving behind what they grew up with.

I admire Millhauser’s finely wrought depiction of these changes, which feel both exterior and personal. Martin Dressler won the Pulitzer Prize and has been rightly celebrated for its prose and descriptive marvels, making the New York of bygone years into a character. One passage, when Martin brings three friends, a mother and her two daughters, for a ride on the Elevated (the aboveground precursor of the subway), conveys this well:

With its peaked gables and its gingerbread trim, the station looked like a country cottage raised on iron columns.… Sunlight poured through the blue stained-glass windows and lay in long blue parallelograms on the floor. Outside on the roof platform they looked down at rows of striped awnings over the shop windows of Columbus Avenue, each with its patch of shade, and watched the black roofs of passing hacks. Suddenly there was a throbbing in the platform, a growing roar — people stepped back. Mrs. Vernon gripped Martin’s arm, white smoke mixed with fiery ashes streamed backward as the engine neared, and with a hiss of steam and a grinding sound like the clashing of many pairs of scissors, the train halted at the platform.

I like Millhauser’s deft, subtle touch, in which he plumbs nascent, unexpressed desires, followed often by rapid, impulsive action. You never know quite what to expect — for the first half of the novel, anyway — which keeps the pages turning.

However, the narrative depends entirely on one character, and Martin grows tiresome. In the beginning, you want him to break his restraints, venture out on his own, find his fortune. But nothing ever satisfies him, and he doesn’t know why, nor does he bother to think about it, much. That may be true to life, especially for someone who grew up with nothing but work and duty.

But past a certain point, there’s a diminishing return. As Martin grows ever grander in his visions, longing to create something so splendid, even he’ll be happy, you know what will result. You also know that in courting a particular woman — and what a bizarre courtship — he’s heading for trouble. Where the first half of the narrative feels volatile, the second half settles into predictability.

More significantly, Martin’s the only character whose inner life comes across, and success erodes his appeal, which leaves the reader nowhere to go. Our hero talks only of his business plans, get easily annoyed if anyone criticizes them, and seems to understand, or want to understand, people only in relation to himself. A narcissist, in other words, bent on greater and greater grandiosity. In keeping with that portrait, there are only so many descriptions of decorative garishness that I can take, so I wound up flipping through some of them.

Martin Dressler the novel is beautifully written and evocative, but Martin Dressler the man is hard to approach, full of much, yet empty. I think that’s the point, and it comes with no surprise.

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

Venice Illusions: Palace of the Drowned

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Review: Palace of the Drowned, by Christine Mangan
Flatiron, 2021. 272 pp. $28

It’s 1966, and Frances (Frankie) Croy has fled to Venice to hide. More than a decade has passed since her debut novel captured the London literary world, during which she’s published a string of failures. A particularly cutting review of her work has cast her writing style as a dinosaur whose long-deserved extinction can’t happen soon enough. A hypersensitive loner, Frankie has let that review get under her skin, believing — with some reason — that her editor shares the negative opinion.

At a publicity gathering for someone else, Frankie erupts violently, having misinterpreted postures and expressions around her as slights. The London tabloids eat this up, and Frankie just manages to avoid legal trouble. After a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital that does her no good and only spawns further gossip columns, she’s taken flight to Venice, where friends loan her a palazzo, known as the Palace of the Drowned.

The doge’s palace, Venice, November 1966, during a flood (unknown author; courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As you may have guessed, Frankie is quite the paranoid. But this novel operates under the old adage that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s after you. And much to her consternation, shortly after her arrival in Venice, a woman much younger than she accosts her, says they’ve met before, and declares herself an admirer of Frankie’s work, especially that debut novel.

Frankie’s certain she’s never met “the girl,” as she thinks of Gilly Larson (though she understands that descriptive is fast becoming déclassé) and wonders what her game is. Gilly fastens herself to Frankie like a leech, offering literary opinions she can’t seem to keep to herself, and which would appear to criticize Frankie’s work, except for that debut novel. To rephrase the adage: Just because a leech professes to like you doesn’t mean she won’t suck your blood.

So the game’s afoot, and a clever, well-crafted game it is. It’s not that Palace of the Drowned proposes a cat-and-mouse relationship between Frankie and Gilly. Rather, Frankie wonders whether that’s what they’ve got, or if she’s reading malign intent into innocent, if strange, behavior. Frankie goes back and forth, at times suspicious, at times grateful for Gilly’s companionship and generosity, from which she learns about the city she detested at first sight but has come to appreciate.

I like how Mangan taps into the pervasive fear belonging to people insecure in their accomplishments, especially when a seemingly more confident youngster comes along. I also like the way the narrative depicts an author fiercely anxious about her creative powers who fears she has only one thing to say and said it years ago. You don’t have to be a writer — or any form of artist — to put yourself in Frankie’s place.

That’s what saves the novel for me. The first hundred pages feel like a chore, because none of the characters appeal to me. Mangan has chosen to enact her tale with a brittle, difficult, even obnoxious cast. Frankie seems to care about no one but herself, and I don’t get why she instinctively pushes people away. Gilly’s self-righteous, intrusive, and controlling, too interested in what other people think of her to see them for themselves. Frankie’s friends, the ones who loan her the palazzo, strike poses I find tiresome, while her editor gives publishing a bad name (and makes a couple implausible moves).

Mangan’s assemblage does offer ample opportunity for conflict, therefore creating “no — and furthermore,” the essence of any thriller. She need not strain for plot points, because much of the story comes from within, and credibly so. You also don’t get too cozy with anyone, so you can readily believe them capable of just about anything. But if you’re like me, you cease to care, and only when Frankie’s vulnerabilities feel at all human, rather than merely repellent, do I latch on.

Palace of the Drowned is a literary thriller, and the prose does a fine job creating character and mood:

Before Venice, Frankie had never seen fog so thick.… Here, it rolled in discernible waves, curled around her ankles, so that she could feel it, engulfing her. The Venetian fog seemed capable of obscuring everything — and she had found a peculiar type of comfort in it, in being wrapped up, swaddled, and feeling as though a cloak of invisibility had been draped around her shoulders. It wasn’t just her sight that became affected — sound became muffled as well. Shapes no longer appeared rooted to anything.

Whether Palace of the Drowned will please you probably depends on your tolerance for its characters. Mangan’s a gifted author, and her psychological portrayals ring true. Yet this book is too cold for me to embrace.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in different form.

Of the Minotaur, and Men: Ariadne

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Review: Ariadne, by Jennifer Saint
Flatiron, 2021. 304 pp. $22

You all know the myth. Minos, king of Crete, keeps a monster, the Minotaur, in an impenetrable labyrinth that kills and eats humans. Every year, Athens sends young men and women as tribute, to be fed to the Minotaur. Except one year, Theseus, prince of Athens, takes his place among those chosen to die. And with the help of Ariadne, Minos’s elder daughter, he succeeds, against all odds. But once the hero has achieved his coup, which will grant him everlasting fame, what happens to Ariadne—and Phaedra, her younger sister—is another matter.

The Theseus-Minotaur myth offers a rich vein to explore, as Mary Renault did in The King Must Die. But Saint, as her title declares, focuses on the women—not just Ariadne but Phaedra; their mother, Pasiphae; and their sisters everywhere, whether abused wives, daughters forced into grotesque marriages, or victims of war and invasion.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, ca. 1520-23 (courtesy National Gallery, London, via Wikipedia; public domain)

Ariadne’s greatest virtue, I think, is Saint’s concept behind the characters, especially the two principals. She portrays Theseus as a man of physical presence and fearlessness utterly lacking in empathy or any feeling other than a thirst for adoration. He exists solely for glory, but as soon as he earns one trophy, he gets bored and goes off seeking others. Consequently, he imitates the gods, who have no empathy either, and who care only for how many worshipers they have and gifts they receive compared to their Olympian brethren. With that reinterpretation, Saint turns whole heroic ideal on its head, shows it to be a narcissistic lie. Brava.

But the years before Theseus comes to Crete, Ariadne has lived in terror and shame as sister to a monstrosity born of divine rape—Poseidon, having heard Minos brag about Pasiphae, impregnated her and made her a laughingstock. (Men indulge their pride; women suffer for it.) When her half-brother is still little, Ariadne tries to show him love and attention as best she can, and to reach her mother, who’s retreated into herself, failing at both. Saint excels here too, reimagining this relationship.

These are terrible burdens for a young girl to bear. Ariadne’s greatest—only—release becomes dancing:

I wove a complicated pattern across the wide, wooden circle, winding long red ribbons around my body. My bare feet beat out a wild, frantic rhythm on the polished tiles, and the long red tails swooped through the air, intertwining and dipping and swinging in time with me. As I danced faster and faster, the pounding of my feet grew louder in my head and blotted out the cruel laughter I heard tinkling behind me wherever I walked. I couldn’t even hear my brother’s low, guttural howls or the pleading cries of the unfortunates who were forced between those heavy, iron-bolted doors with the labrys etched deep into the stone above.

But Ariadne falls short in the telling. One passage may soar, sweeping you away, while the next may drop you into the trite or generic. Too many key moments involve long series of rhetorical questions to express moral or emotional confusion—a weak, overused device—and random descriptions or narration repeat words or phrases for no perceivable reason. Ariadne’s voice and thought process occasionally wanders from the ancient to the modern, rational world, particularly jarring because we’re dealing with a theocentric universe that knows nothing of Descartes or Bacon. Similarly, idioms like “I was floored” sit poorly on the tongue of an ancient Cretan princess. As for Phaedra, though well distinguished from her older sister, she seems to grow up almost overnight at age thirteen.

Halfway through, the narrative takes a momentous, exciting leap, as every novel should (and since I didn’t know that aspect of Ariadne’s myth, I won’t reveal it here, because the surprise element works beautifully). Suffice to say that Saint makes good use of these sections, some of my favorites in the book, to deepen the themes she introduces earlier.

As that part progresses, though, I get an uncomfortable feeling that, in Ariadne’s universe, everything men touch will invariably crumble, die, or rot from within. Only women have the capacity to nurture, speak and act honestly, or remain loyal. Men will always fall victim to glitter and glory; women won’t. This one-sided portrayal makes me roll my eyes, but it’s also a surprise, considering the psychological subtlety behind the premise and the main characters.

Ariadne will make you think, but as a novel, it’s uneven and inconsistent.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Portrait of a Family and an Era: Margreete’s Harbor

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Review: Margreete’s Harbor, by Eleanor Morse
St. Martin’s, 2021. 384 pp. $28

One day in 1955, Liddie Bright gets the phone call she’s long dreaded: Her mother, Margreete, has set fire to her kitchen, final proof that she can no longer live alone. An institution is out of the question; Margreete would never go. A woman who has survived three husbands and can be stubborn even in her lucid moments has equally effective ways of exerting her will at the times her clearer faculties desert her. So someone needs to care for her, and Liddie’s elected, or believes she is, which amounts to the same thing.

Trouble is, Liddie, her husband, Harry, and their two kids, Bernie and Eva, have a settled, more or less happy life in Michigan. Margreete lives in Burnt Harbor, Maine. Liddie, a professional cellist, has begun to establish herself with local ensembles after years of hard work. Harry has a teaching job he likes and good prospects. Bernie and Eva don’t want to go anywhere.

But the family does move, perhaps with too little marital conflict, though Morse gets a lot of mileage out of her premise. As the years progress, each character grapples with internal changes and those around them, or tries to. Since we’re mostly talking about the Sixties, there’s upheaval, and the author finds great meaning hitching the personal to the political. Harry, a conscientious objector during World War II, feels the Vietnam War like an insult and sounds off in his classrooms. Bernie’s only friend is Black, which puts the civil rights marches in an intimate context. Liddie, though less politically committed than her husband or son, nevertheless reflects the feminism in the air as she tries to figure out why her marriage constrains her.

A demonstrator against the Vietnam War offers a flower to a soldier guarding the Pentagon, October 1967 (courtesy Staff Sergeant Albert R. Simpson for the Department of the Army; National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Consequently, Margreete’s Harbor consists of small moments writ large, what the publishing industry calls “a quiet book,” an often pejorative label. After all, who wants to buy a “quiet” book? (Probably more people than editors realize.) That’s a pity, because you can always tell when an author injects noise for its own sake, and if those books sell better, they do so through shadow or trickery, not substance.

Instead, Morse gives you characters as deep as the Maine harbor on which they live, contradictory, sometimes cranky, secretive, and altogether real, depicted in gorgeous prose. She’s not afraid to show you their faults, to the extent that I have the urge to bang Harry’s and Liddie’s heads together—he, for his preaching and inability to admit mistakes; and she, for her self-pity. Yet their struggle redeems them, for they want to understand what happened to their dreams and their marriage, which, at times, feels like an increasingly leaky vessel. I love the way Morse portrays the kids, who battle for parental attention, reach for or push one another away, and try to find out who they are.

But Margreete’s the center, in many ways, and the keenly observed, loving portrait of a woman losing her mind will stay with you:

Some days she could think almost like normal, and other days everything was so mixed up — the jumble inside her, what happened yesterday, what did she eat for breakfast, who was that man who cooked in the kitchen and called everything a blue plate special. Words came from her mouth that she knew weren’t right the minute she said them, but the words she searched for fell down holes. She could see her blunders on the faces lifted to hers. The way strangers called her honey as though she were seven years old. The way they spoke loud to her as though she was deaf. She wasn’t deaf, she was haywire. If she could open her brain for them, they’d see. They would see the circuits floundering for their snaps. They would see the mess in there and know she was doing damn well considering what she had to work with.

If I have one complaint about Margreete’s Harbor, it’s the scope. The narrative has an interior feel, which I accept, to a point, because the family relationships matter most. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to see a wider camera angle, particularly to reveal Burnt Harbor. There’s a classroom, a fast-food joint, a principal’s office, all of which could exist anywhere—and again, we’re back to interiors. I want to feel the town vibe, a little, see a crowd scene. The brevity of certain chapters also perplexes me—scope in a different sense—though I understand that Morse has a many years to cover, changes in season, and so forth.

But these objections shouldn’t keep you from reading an excellent book. Whether you like relationship novels or wish to discover (or relive) the Sixties, portrayed here with great fidelity, you’ll be rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appears in different form, as does my interview with the author.

Betrayer and Betrayed: The Revolution of Marina M.

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Review: The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch
Little, Brown, 2017. 800 pp. $30

Marina Dmitrievna Makarova, as old as the century in 1916, can’t wait to break free of her constrained, privileged existence in Petrograd — or thinks that’s what she wants. Change is in the air, and desperation grips Russia, an empire bleeding its life away in a world war practically nobody supports, except her parents. Refusing to accept their rules or blandishments, she has a love affair or two, one with a fellow poet; marches on behalf of oppressed workers; and glories when the revolution topples the tsar. You can guess that this family will soon fracture even more.

But though Marina has been true to herself, she pays a terrible price. What the revolutionaries promise bears no relation to what happens in reality, and this passionate young woman, whose motto seems to be, “Act first, think afterward,” finds out the hard way. To name just two problems, it’s difficult to tell which threat is worse, famine or the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police.

As a bourgeoise, Marina’s already an enemy of the state and can’t be too careful, constantly having to prove herself despite who she is, a direct opposite to the advantages she enjoyed in her youth. Taking care doesn’t entirely square with her impulsive nature, but she’s also a quick study and finds she has more inner resources and survival skills than she knew.

The novel opens in California, 1932, so there’s no question she survives the revolution. As my regular readers know, I detest prologues, but there’s a practical reason for this one. The current volume is only the first of a series; the author has apparently decided not to leave the reader hanging at the end, and I think she’s right. Further, the journey’s more about how and why than where, and Marina covers a lot of ground, emotionally and physically.

Stinton Jones’s photograph of a demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd, March 1917 (courtesy https://archive.org/details/ russiainrevolut00jone via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Throughout, however, Fitch realizes the Russian atmosphere, be it Petrograd or rural peasantdom, with bold, lush strokes and complete authority. With unflagging attention to detail, she renders the idealism and mercilessness that suffuses the air, and gives you back alleys, great houses, and, in this instance, a Cheka prison:

The smell of wet walls and mold, and a dirty animal odor, increased as we descended. A slaughterhouse stench. He [the guard] walked me down the dim hall. Muffled voices came from behind thick doors. A rising shriek snaked from the base of my spine and coiled around my heart, squeezing my throat in its knot. We passed yellow walls the color of old teeth. Black sticky floors sucked at our shoes. Bare bulbs buzzed overhead. The rest of the country was plunged in darkness, but the Cheka would have its electricity.

Like the Russian novels Marina M. evokes, this one has much more to it than a sweeping lens and epic events — it’s the characters who count the most. Marina takes center stage, but her lovers come through with brilliant clarity, as do her mother, younger brother, and a radical revolutionary friend. You understand what motivates these people, all of whom have inner lives for the reader to navigate. So much happens that it seems our heroine has lived a full lifetime by her nineteenth birthday, but that weight never feels like a burden, even at over eight hundred pages. That’s because Fitch keeps you in touch with the feelings of the moment.

Much of the novel revolves around Marina’s sexual awakening, mirroring her political cognizance, as she learns more about attraction and sex as power. Though she enjoys men as lovers, she seldom loses her perspective on who gets to make decisions, and who has to follow them; who gives the orders; and who does the work. This is particularly trenchant, because the revolution that was supposed to honor all work and eliminate the roles of master and servant clearly hasn’t touched relations between men and women. Once, when she witnesses a peasant wife completely efface herself before her husband, Marina observes privately that Marx may have believed that power belongs to those who control the means of production, but this mother, who has produced four children, is her husband’s chattel.

Marina M. is also about betrayal, involving parents, children, lovers, ideals, or merely the greed and envy of the comrade listening at the keyhole. Marina, both victim and perpetrator, wants what she wants and won’t be denied. If at times she seems excessively larger than life or has an insight perhaps more convenient than earned, these are minor blemishes on an otherwise exceptional, engrossing novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from a neighborhood free library. I’m grateful to whoever donated it.

Hard-Boiled, Yet Warm: Fortune Favors the Dead

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead, by Stephen Spotswood
Doubleday, 2020. 321 pp. $27

Brooklyn, 1942. Willowjean Parker, a circus performer, has a temporary gig on her off nights guarding a building site, trying to earn some extra dough. That leads her to make two significant connections. First, she interrupts what might be an attempted murder, having deduced that a particular mug is trouble, and intervenes at the right moment. Second, the potential victim she rescues is Lillian Pentecost, the city’s most famous private detective, who offers Willowjean (known as Will) a job. Lillian suffers from MS, and she needs someone to perform legwork, preferably someone who’s agile, observant, and able to defend herself. Thus begins a fruitful partnership.

Three years later, a headline case involves the detectives. The prior year, Alistair Collins, whose steel company got fabulously rich on wartime government contracts, shot himself, which raised questions at the time. Now, the war has ended, and the board of directors resists calls to abandon the weapons business and return to peacetime manufactures. Those demands come from Abigail Collins, Alistair’s widow — and, as it happens, his former secretary. But she too dies, at a Halloween party where a medium conducts a séance, and practically everyone in the phone book is a suspect.

However, when the police get nowhere solving Abigail’s murder, the Collins family calls in Lillian and Will, hoping to make headway on the investigation without drawing attention. The insistence on secrecy might be only natural, given the Collins name and position of wealth and power, except that everybody seems to be lying. To add to the confusion, Will has a thing for Becca Collins, the late industrialist’s beautiful daughter, and the attraction seems mutual.

Throw in that Will, the proverbial child who grew up rough and ran away to join the circus, has a narrative style that will remind you, if the circumstances don’t, of the hard-boiled detective novels she devours. One quip reads, “She’d filled up with enough coffee to get Rip van Winkle doing the jitterbug”; or, about Becca, a “borderline wild child,” Will observes, “Though ‘wild’ by the standards of her tax bracket might constitute using the salad fork on the entrée.” Falling for a key witness is also an oldie, though the gender reversal provides a twist. You get the idea, though, that Spotswood’s aware of what he’s imitating, and his obvious love for the genre shows through. He also knows better than to take it too seriously.

Humphrey Bogart plays Raymond Chandler’s great hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, with Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge, in their 1946 film The Big Sleep. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain, as the National Motion Picture Council did not renew the copyright.)

The author weaves the mystery with a sure hand, and though you may guess at a fact or two, he hides the trail well while still leaving everything in plain sight. Or just about; I’ll get to that in a second.

The real divergence from convention centers on the characters: They’re vulnerable. Lillian holds back more, because she’s naturally reserved, but you get her around the edges, and she’s human. I wish she came across more fully, but here’s a woman who knows she’s dying, yet asks no favors and gives her services pro bono to people who couldn’t afford her, like those with abusive husbands or crooked employers. Lillian has a cause, helping other women, which in part led her to Will.

Will’s more out there emotionally, and though her bio sounds like a cliché, she herself isn’t. She has passions and principles, and if she’s more likely to show the latter than the former, you do see them, and she’s not in the least buttoned down like her boss. She too will respond to a woman in distress, as she once was herself, a worthy feminist twist on an old formula. Always, beneath the tough exterior lurks a frightened child:

But sitting in that cell, my anxieties bred fast, and like with the bedbugs, scratching only made it worse. I spent the second night alone. The only light was from a dim bulb far down the corridor. The bravado I’d managed to conjure up and wear like a shield drained away. I pictured the cell door opening and my father stepping in, his face red, leather belt wrapped tight around his fist.
Found you.

A few chapters from the end, when the detectives are close to solving the mystery, Spotswood plainly withholds conclusions they’ve reached or specifics about preparations they’re making. I wish he hadn’t, but I understand why he does so. He also pulls a punch in the great revelatory scene, in which the detectives spill all (another trope, that). On a minor note, the courtesy title Ms. appears throughout, oddly enough. There’s a hint that Will is narrating from the distant future, but that would not explain why characters in 1945 would even think to speak like that.

However, these are quibbles. Fortune Favors the Dead is a terrific mystery, and this first volume in an intended series promises entertaining adventures.

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