South African Tragedy: Who Killed Piet Barol?

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Review: Who Killed Piet Barol?, by Richard Mason
Knopf, 2016. 362 pp. $28

Despite the title, this remarkable novel is no whodunit, unless you take the death implied in the title as a more symbolic accusation, in which case we’re all guilty.

Now that I’ve confused you thoroughly, let me explain. Piet Barol, last seen in The History of a Pleasure Seeker making his way in Amsterdam through roguish charm, has broadened his horizons and his debts. Styling himself a French viscount, he’s living large in Cape Town with his American wife, Stacey, a former opera singer blessed with charm and diplomatic cunning more than equal to his own. But the Barols’ furniture business is failing, partly because Piet can’t bring himself to collect what he’s owed, but mostly because they spend money they don’t have to keep up appearances. Things look desperate, especially as the year is 1914, and Europe plunges into war, which puts Piet in a bind. Had he represented himself truthfully from the get-go as a Dutch national, he’d be in the clear, since the Netherlands remains neutral. But as a French aristocrat, surely he should be fighting for la patrie?

The South African Native National Congress delegation to the British Parliament in 1914 tried unsuccessfully to reverse colonial land policy (courtesy historywiz.com)

So it’s altogether convenient that he disappear for awhile, and when he hears that there’s a forest full of high-quality wood available for the taking, he sees how he can restart his furniture business with practically no overhead. However, to find the wood and remove it, he must hire two Xhosa men, Luvo and Ntsina; and therein hangs a tale.

First of all, this is no ordinary forest, but one dating from the time of Jesus, fecund in its density:

The grove was almost a single being, so bound were its member trees to one another, and yet each was wholly individual. They had grown together from saplings and forged a union without conflict, free from betrayal and viciousness. In their crowns were gardens of fertile soil, several inches deep, dropped over centuries by passing birds. In these gardens earthworms wriggled, grown distinct from those that churned the forest floor. Their branches began thirty feet above the ground, and this refuge from predators made them desirable residences for all sorts of creatures that relished distance from the great cats.

The forest represents a society of interdependence, in other words, a metaphor for that which white colonists have set about destroying among the Bantu peoples whose land they have stolen. More specifically, the noblest trees serve a religious purpose for the Xhosa, who believe their ancestors reside within them, whereas Piet doesn’t even know that the trunks are as old as Christianity.

But Mason, who managed to make Piet a sympathetic character as an Amsterdam imposter, does so here as well. Not only does Piet befriend Luvo and Ntsina in a true sense and grow to trust them, he lets himself see things from their perspective and corrects his behavior accordingly. He also entrusts his young son, Arthur, to them so that the boy can learn the ways of the forest, which Piet correctly judges will help him grow into a man. That said, Piet nevertheless sets out to take the Ancestor Trees, and though he fully intends to compensate Ntsina and Luvo for the loss, he’s a plunderer. And his failure to stand up to Stacey, especially where his African associates are concerned, makes him a weakling.

Then again, the degree to which he comes to love and understand life in the wild frees him from many prejudices. It also releases the artist in him, so that the furniture he carves adopts African themes and is absolutely gorgeous. Morever, Mason takes care to show the village politics among the Xhosa, many of whom, in their own way, are just as rapacious as the colonials.

But in the end, you know that all this will go wrong, that the scale of destruction the white men wreak will be far greater than that of the black, and that only one side will profit. That systematic destruction answers the question of the title, and that’s why I said we’re all guilty for condoning or participating in the crime. But how Mason arrives at this conclusion makes a fine tale, and that he renders the Xhosa in ways that ring true is no accident. For a year, he lived among them in a tent, learning their language and culture, and establishing a center for green farming. Who Killed Piet Barol? is a worthy result, a wide-ranging discussion of morals and racial tensions, and a pretty good yarn besides.

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

Nineteenth-Century Noir: By Gaslight

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Review: By Gaslight, by Steven Price
Farrar, Straus, 2016. 731 pp. $28

William Pinkerton has much more than his reputation to make a thief uneasy. Not only is he an accomplished detective, son of the famous Allan (and director of the agency that bears his name), William grasps implicitly that revenge and justice are reverse sides of the same coin, and the difference doesn’t trouble him overmuch. If a man’s a criminal, he must be stopped, and proof or evidence are mere tools toward that end. That makes Pinkerton as relentless as he is unpredictable, and if there’s one thing a careful, professional criminal dislikes, it’s an adversary who makes his own rules with the daring calculation of a fanatic.

Allan Pinkerton’s obituary in Harper’s Weekly, 1884; even in death, he cast a deep shadow on his sons (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

So it is that in 1885, Pinkerton has traveled to London to track down Edward Shade, a figure from his late father’s past. Why Pinkerton père spent so much effort trying to find Shade, whose elusiveness fits his name, isn’t entirely clear. But William has inherited the quest, which he pursues with every ounce of his considerable energy. And when the trail leads him to a woman believed to be connected to Shade, she literally slips from his grasp to throw herself in the Thames.

I wouldn’t dream of summarizing further. At 731 pages, By Gaslight is a weighty novel, but that’s like saying the pyramids are large and made of stone. Rather, imagine said pyramid built by dropping pebble upon pebble, and you have Price’s narrative technique. As you read, each mote falls into place as if there were no other suitable niche, and just when you think you might have uncovered the secret you’ve been waiting to see revealed, there’s another hidden inside. I defy anyone to start this novel and not finish it.

So I won’t tell you more about the plot, but I will mention three other characters. There’s Adam Foole, a gifted man of the “flash” (criminal) world, with a checkered past that has taken him around the globe, like as not in desperate straits. Master thief and con artist he is, but where most novelists would make such a character a likeable rogue, Price reaches higher. Foole’s neither rogue nor Robin Hood, though the men he robs are brutal types who amass wealth for its own sake and hide behind it, a tacit comparison that works in Foole’s favor. More importantly, though, love and friendship matter most to him, including his affection for his two partners in crime.

They are Japheth Fludd, a mountain of a man whose suspicious worldview provides a counterpoint to Foole’s more romantic nature, and whose bond to Foole seems at first hard to explain. But never fear; Price gets to it, eventually. Foole and Fludd look after Molly, a street urchin and pickpocket extraordinaire, whom Foole treats like the daughter he’s never had, and whom he patiently instructs in manners and the right way to treat people. They’re a marvelous triumvirate.

But a story of this heft wouldn’t take flight without winged prose, and this is where Price dazzles. A certain tone of voice is “cold and brutal as a steel cable”; William loves his wife’s name, “the aristocratic lace of its syllables, the knot it made of his tongue.” And then there’s London, which Price renders in its filth and splendor like a latter-day Dickens, minus the sentimentality:

He did not go directly in but slipped instead down a side alley. Creatures stirred in the papered windows as he passed. The alley was a river of muck and he walked carefully. In openings in the wooden walls he glimpsed the small crouched shapes of children, all bones and knees, half dressed, their breath pluming in the cold. They met his eyes boldly. The fog was thinner here, the stink more savage and bitter.

The novel ranges from England to India to South Africa to the United States, both the Western cow towns where desperadoes rob banks, and Virginia during the Civil War. (Allan Pinkerton runs spies for General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and William joins his father there.) But everywhere the narrative goes, you sense the place and time as if they entered through your fingertips touching the pages.

I like intricate books, though I must confess I got twisted around so that I’m not sure I understand everything in this one. But I don’t mind that as much as the two annoying tics in which Price indulges himself. By Gaslight has no quotation marks, and sometimes you have to parse out where dialogue ends and narrative resumes. He’s not alone–Lydia Peelle did the same in The Midnight Cool–but I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. It’s as if the authors are pretending that they’re so good, their prose needs no punctuation. Silly. Similarly, Price uses commas so sparingly that his longer sentences sometimes have a breathless, full-of-themselves quality, like a more loquacious Hemingway. I don’t get that, either.

But By Gaslight isn’t just good; it’s spectacular, in every sense of the word.

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

More Subversion, Please: Wolf Hollow

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Review: Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
Dutton, 2016. 291 pp. $17

Eleven-year-old Annabelle McBride learns to lie because a sadistic newcomer to her rural Pennsylvania town pushes her to it. Betty Glengarry is several years older and uses her superior size, strength, and aggressiveness to work her will. She demands money, threatens Annabelle’s younger brothers if Annabelle doesn’t comply, and dishes out punishment that suggests what she’s capable of. Since it’s 1943, and everyone’s thinking about the war effort against Germany, it’s a nice touch to portray a young girl confronting a bully at home.

War Food Administration poster by Morley, 1945 (courtesy War Food Administration, Agriculture Department, via Wikimedia Commons)

In this engaging, evocative novel meant chiefly (but not solely) for children, I wish Wolk had taken more care to connect the dots, of which the bullying theme provides one example. Annabelle never once thinks about what purpose the war might have, or whether the adults around her live up to their patriotism. She doesn’t even recognize that the McBrides, as a farm family, can feed themselves more generously than city folk, whose lives are more strictly rationed–another opportunity missed.

Even so, Wolk derives power from small moments writ large. The key character here is Toby, a veteran of the previous war who’s never recovered from whatever he saw and did in battle. Toby strikes most people as odd, but, never having hurt anyone, he lives as he likes, as a hermit in the woods, and his eccentricities have never roused anything more hostile than gossip. Now, however, as Betty’s cruelties multiply, Toby becomes a convenient suspect. Annabelle gathers that Betty’s trying to frame him, and most people implicitly accept his guilt, preferring to blame a misfit rather than a sweet, innocent girl.

Annabelle therefore takes it upon herself to protect a man she knows as fragile and frightened, kind when you allow him to be. It outrages her particularly that her Aunt Lily ranks among his most outspoken (and wrongheaded) critics. But to protect Toby requires more and more deceit, which makes Annabelle uncomfortable, so there’s that. And as the net around him tightens, the more she discovers that adults whom she’d trusted to believe in fairness or justice seem ready to let their prejudices guide them instead. This too is a nice touch; she faces down a bully, whereas they attack the victim.

I like both the moral meat implied here and the manner in which Wolk serves it. Her clear, lucid prose makes me think that she believes in E. B. White’s rules for cherishing the English language; and her careful, loving portrayal of rural life evokes one of his favorite subjects and philosophy. Consider this passage:

Our old barn taught me one of the most important lessons I was ever to learn: that the extraordinary can live in the simplest things.
Each season meant a world refashioned inside its stalls and storerooms.
Pockets of warmth in winter, the milk cows and draft horses like furnaces, their heat banked by straw bedding and new manure.
In spring, swallows fledged from muddy nests wedged in crannies overhead, and kittens fresh and soft staggered between hooves and attacked the tails of tackle hanging from stable pegs.

But, as White also understood, children’s literature is no good without a strong element of subversion. Children see adult hypocrisy, cruelty, irrationality, and faithlessness more clearly than anyone else, because they’re tuned to it and suffer from it the most–think of Huckleberry Finn, Alice puzzling her way through Wonderland, or, more recently, Harry Potter’s struggles with evil incarnate. Wolk has the moral setup, for sure, delivered with admirable economy. Without fuss or heavy lifting, she gives you good versus evil, truth versus lies, the suffering of the innocents, and betrayal. What more could you want?

Answer: depth and ambiguity. Toby, Annabelle, and just about all her family are 100 percent good, despite a minor failing or two, whereas Betty is all bad, without a redeeming feature. Moreover, it’s not just that she’s bad; she’s a sociopath, a cliché that has ruined many a novel. As my seventeen-year-old astutely observed–he read the book over my shoulder during a long plane ride–Wolf Hollow would be far more gripping and believable had Annabelle rejected Betty’s friendly overtures, prompting a reaction. That would have redressed the balance between the characters, which Wolk could have fleshed out further had Betty’s cruelties seemed more like acting out or an attempt to get attention rather than cold-blooded violence. Instead, Betty has an accomplice in her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, with whom she gets up to who knows what, so she becomes that kind of girl–another cliché. And to overturn this axis of evil, Annabelle pulls off some rather improbable stunts, especially miraculous from so young a protagonist.

I give Wolk credit for daring to hurt her characters, both good and bad–she’s willing to show that life isn’t fair. But she’d have written a much better book had she not ducked two subversive truths: Good and bad aren’t always easy to see, and doing the right thing is usually more complicated than it appears.

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

Fictional Essays: The Fire by Night

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Review: The Fire by Night, by Teresa Messineo
Morrow, 2017. 306 pp. $27

If you read this book, you’ll be getting history you probably haven’t heard, about American Army nurses during World War II. You’ll see their bravery, endurance, and resourcefulness, their heroism under appalling conditions, their competence and professional dedication, the constant sexism they faced, the emotional trauma that destroyed their psyches, and the enemies who shot at them, Geneva Conventions be damned.

Army nurse washes her clothes in her helmet, Morocco, 1943 (courtesy history.army.mil)

Even when no particular crisis presents itself, Messineo re-creates the moment-to-moment tensions that afflict her two nurse protagonists:

So begins the long task of finishing the surgeries already in progress; stabilizing those just coming into the post-op tent; giving plasma, or whole blood when available; lifting the ‘heavy orthopedics’ with their colossal casts, arms and legs immobilized by a hundred pounds of plaster. The shock patients with their thready pulses; the boys with ‘battle fatigue,’ whimpering and taking cover under their cots, thinking themselves still in the field; the deaf, the maimed, and the blind, their heads carefully wrapped and bandaged, their tentative fingers reaching out in front of them, seared and melted together from clawing their way out of burning tanks.

Consequently, The Fire by Night bears witness to the unsung heroines of World War II (if not, by implication, all wars). Such a story is long overdue. And yet, despite its powerful moments, rendered so vividly that you feel as if you can’t take any more punishment, The Fire by Night feels incomplete as a novel. In fact, it’s more like a tendentious essay–or two of them, to be precise.

I say two because the protagonists’ stories hardly intersect, and if either were omitted, the plot wouldn’t change, only get shorter. Jo McMahon serves in Europe, whereas Kay Elliott is captured in the Philippines and spends years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Though each undergoes her own, somewhat different but always harrowing trials, after a while, their struggles seem like a catalog rather than a coherent narrative. Moreover, Messineo is plainly out to set the record straight, and her earnestness undermines her.

Of the two protagonists, Jo has the advantage. Abandoned at the front lines caring for a tent of six critically wounded or ill patients, she must constantly use her ingenuity to keep them, and herself, alive. I like this story better, especially its first half, when problems multiply, she keeps going by force of will, and the men she’s tending are just bodies, not individuals yet. On the other hand, Kay’s narrative, though gripping in detail–she’s captive in what’s essentially a death camp–remains a more solitary struggle. But to varying degrees, both stories suffer from the same flaw: They fall flat when the protagonists deal with men, not one of whom has any depth.

For example, take the captain whose undermanned infantry platoon holds the position where Jo’s tent happens to be. Might he insult her, demean her rank and abilities, and say that he can’t guarantee her safety? Sure. Would he throw tantrum after tantrum and shrug off the lives of the men in her tent? I doubt it. On the flip side, Kay’s husband is a flawless human, the mere sight of whom inspired her to remove her clothes–and that’s just about all we know of him. Back at the other extreme, when Kay and Jo trained Stateside, they worked with a doctor who sexually assaulted the nurses and threatened to blacklist them if they complained. Real problem? Of course. Real guy? No; he’s cardboard, and, to no surprise, his comeuppance arrives all too easily.

Male authors can and should be faulted for failing to draw their women characters as full people. But the reverse must also be true, and to call this novel “women’s fiction” would be no excuse. More importantly, to describe sexual brutalities perpetrated by cartoon men only cheapens the impact, when subtlety would serve much better. These themes deserve no less.

I also hope that Messineo (and her editor) pay closer attention next time to the words on the page; I was startled that a writer this capable should commit so many lapses. For instance, civilians and other noncombatants are interned in a prisoner-of-war camp, not interred, as the text says here, though that might also occur eventually, as it frequently does. A bomber doesn’t hone in on a target; it homes in. Finally, the redundant phrase historical fiction novel has always struck me as the mark of an amateur–and in this book, it appears in the Acknowledgments section. Yikes.

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

Destroyed by Desire: The Midnight Cool

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Review: The Midnight Cool, by Lydia Peelle
Harper, 2017. 359 pp. $27

Summer 1916, Richfield, Tennessee. Billy Monday and Charles McLaughlin, grifters who could smooth-talk just about anyone into buying a bridge, have rolled into town, normally a prelude to a quick deal and an even quicker getaway. But Leland Hatcher, the wealthiest man in Richfield–note the town’s (fictional) name–has advertised a beautiful black mare, The Midnight Cool, for sale. Charles, who knows horseflesh a little, has never seen so captivating an animal, and though he may be a vagabond, he decides he’ll have that horse. Billy, who knows people as well as horseflesh, is skeptical (and, by the way, note his name too, an ironic twist on Billy Sunday, a famous evangelist). What’s more, Hatcher’s daughter, Catherine, whom Charles meets by chance, tells him the horse isn’t worth his money.

But Charles is after more than the horse, something he realizes only when he tries to buy it. He wants to be welcome in homes like Hatcher’s, to ride in a car like his Pierce Arrow, and to be well thought of, as he supposes Hatcher is. But most of all, Charles wants Catherine, as captivating a young woman as he’s ever seen, though he assumes he’s not good enough for her. Wouldn’t you know, once Charles has sunk all the money Billy and he possess into The Midnight Cool, the horse throws and tramples Billy and must be destroyed. Naturally, the pair have to stick around in Richfield, so that Billy can heal and Charles can earn some money. Of course, that also gives him time to woo Catherine.

To his amazement, he succeeds more than he has any right to expect. Not only does Catherine respond, recognizing her own dreams of escaping Richfield in her new beau’s apparent freedom, he makes more money than he’s ever had before, and it’s even honest work. The British Army, fighting the First World War in French mud, has been buying American mules by the shipload. Charles scouts them out for a military contractor, and suddenly, the town worthies, including Leland Hatcher, begin to think of him as an up-and-coming young man involved in a righteous cause.

Unsung hero: a mule on the Western Front (courtesy warmule.org, via the National Library of Scotland)

But, as Billy, an Irish immigrant who’s fallen into many troughs on the waves of life, observes:

Caveat emptor, that was the first rule. The second was to never lie. Twist the truth, yes, hide it, decorate it, do what you would with it, of course, but you never looked a man in the face and opened your mouth and spoke an outright lie. You never knew when you might come through a town again, and you wanted to maintain a reputation.

Caveat emptor, indeed. Just as Charles has bought a murderous horse from an unscrupulous man (Hatcher drugged the horse so that she would seem docile), his other desires have blinded him too. He sees only the sympathy and attraction between Catherine and himself, not their differences; for starters, she’s a rebellious individualist, while he wants to fit in and be respectable. The mismatch between desire and personality repeats with all the other characters, save Billy.

Where many, if not most, novelists would focus on how people overcome obstacles to get what they want, Peelle’s more interested in how it hurts them once they have it. Hatcher does much worse than drugging horses, and he gets away with everything because he’s rich, but he’s also miserable. Peelle’s fascinated with power, which nobody uses well in this novel, and which always burns them. The reason that Billy lies outside this realm is that he wants what most people would consider little or nothing–only to see and appreciate life in its magnitude. Nobody can give him or deny him that, so he’s safe now, though of course, it wasn’t always so.

The Midnight Cool is a fine novel indeed, but reader, beware. As with Billy’s statement about telling lies and hiding truth, Peelle never lies outright, but she does hide things, sometimes in plain sight. I hate prologues, but I’ll make an exception here, because this one tells you what you need to know. Take it at face value, and if you keep going, you’ll be treated to a riveting, potent tale with characters whose inner lives are right out there. The Midnight Cool is a literary page-turner, what reverse snobs say is impossible, but trust me, Peelle’s an excellent storyteller, and her prose can be electric.

She does rely on one or two coincidences that might be predictable or predictably ironic or both, and she also shoves bits and pieces in odd places, so that you can learn how Billy and Charles met up and what keeps them together. But hell, nobody’s perfect. What I find more annoying are the cutesy mannerisms, such as the absence of quotation marks or the consistent use of alright instead of all right, which, though technically correct, strikes me as showing off.

All the same, Peelle has written something to brag about.

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

Too Much Conscience?: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

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Review: The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers
Algonquin, 2017. 254 pp. $26

After her half-sister’s wedding in rural South Carolina, seventeen-year-old Placidia Fincher makes a bold decision. She accepts a marriage proposal from Major Gryffyth Hockaday, a widower considerably older than herself, whom she has never met before and to whom she has spoken but briefly during the wedding reception. Over the next two days, Placidia has cause to wonder whether she made a mistake but also a sense that her heart has led her to her true love. Unfortunately, she has no time to figure out which, for the year is 1863, and the Civil War claims his attention. Recalled to his regiment sooner than anticipated, Major Hockaday leaves his bride in a perilous, unsettled situation. She must put aside her fears that he may be killed at any moment; raise his young son by a previous marriage; manage their farm, something she has never done; and face various threats to which she’s particularly vulnerable, as a young woman, alone.

What a splendid premise, and what a strong way to begin a novel. However, that’s not how Rivers approaches her narrative. Rather, she picks up the story from the major’s return from war in 1865, whereupon he discovers that Placidia has given birth to a child that couldn’t possibly be his, and that the law has charged her with murdering the infant. This is a pretty good premise too.

The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, South Carolina, April 1861, from Alma A. Pelot’s stereoscopic photograph (courtesy Bob Zeller via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Nevertheless, about halfway through its short narrative, The Second Mrs. Hockaday goes wrong for me, despite having so much in its favor. I confess that I dislike epistolary novels, but that’s not my problem here; Rivers handles the form expertly, using letters, diary entries, and legal depositions to advance the plot. I also admire her prose, which captures Placidia’s voice beautifully, as when she dances with Hockaday at her half-sister’s wedding:

His hands were calloused and he held me at a distance in the way Abner [a slave] holds a fresh coonskin–like he was fixing to nail me to a shed before the smell made his eyes water. . . .He was telling the truth when he said he was a poor dancer and he was so tall I had to tilt my head back to see his jaw and his Adam’s apple while we danced. But as the music ended he guided me into the alcove in the dining room where his left hand slid down my back while his right hand pulled me to his side. I stumbled. He smoothly righted me with his hands on my waist. Didn’t I tell you I was clumsy, I said, and I must have been blushing because I fancied my hair was on fire.

Rivers further excels at creating a wartime ambience, based on painstaking research and telling detail. South Carolina was the first state to secede, and Major Hockaday’s Thirteenth South Carolina Regiment fights with stalwart pride, but the landowners she portrays strike poses while shirking their contribution to the cause. Deserters pretending to gather supplies for the army rob the countryside blind, and Placidia suffers their depredations.

So where’s the beef? Simple: Rivers gives the game away too soon. The reader sees how the case against Placidia will go, and though the why comes later, to me, that’s disappointing. I wish the author had let the crime and the mystery surrounding it hold center stage throughout. But maybe that’s the drawback of the epistolary style, whose very economy, though it drives the narrative at a good clip, undoes any chance to linger or spread out, so that the resolution comes too quickly.

But Rivers has something else in mind too, and that’s where I begin to lose confidence. Slavery gets a light touch here; too light, in my opinion. The racial divide tinges the narrative but doesn’t infuse it, as if Placidia were holding it at arm’s length, much as Hockaday held her during their first dance. And yet, this is the Civil War. Brutality against slaves occurs, but, with one exception, never at her hands (and she regrets it as an economic necessity). It’s always someone else, somewhere else, who supports the evil institution and will kill to preserve it, whereas Placidia, and the people she loves, at times sound like 1960s liberals, working for change.

Not only do I find this hard to believe, I see only the feeblest connection between this narrative and the crime of which Placidia stands accused. No doubt, it must be uncomfortable to write a novel in which otherwise good people are slaveowners, and I understand the urge to redeem them. But Rivers would have convinced me more readily had she not bothered and let the main story, which needs no adornment, carry The Second Mrs. Hockaday.

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

East African Gothic: Leopard at the Door

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Review: Leopard at the Door, by Jennifer McVeigh
Putnam, 2016. 385 pp. $26

Ever since her mother died, and her father sent her to live with her grandparents in England, Rachel Fullsmith has dreamed of returning to Kenya, where she was born. Now, at age eighteen, against her father’s advice, she has spent her meager savings for her passage to Mombasa. As Rachel quickly learns, she finds hostility rather than fond memories of what she loved as a child.

That hostility comes in two forms, personal and political. The year is 1952, and the independence movement known as Mau Mau has been gathering force. Thus far, the Mau Mau have refrained from attacking white residents, though they have murdered and mutilated Africans who refuse to swear their loyalty oath. But as the violence and British countermeasures ratchet up, Rachel will have excruciating choices to make.

A detachment of the King's African Rifles, on patrol against Mau Mau forces, ca. 1952-56 (courtesy Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

A detachment of the King’s African Rifles, on patrol against Mau Mau forces, ca. 1952-56 (courtesy Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As the opening scenes make clear, the instincts her mother taught her stress compassion toward fellow humans over race loyalty and its inherent prejudice. Right off the boat, she’s delighted to realize that she still speaks good Swahili, and that the port of Mombasa looks and feels like heaven, despite the filth and bad smells. Her father’s Kikuyu foreman, who meets her and drives her upcountry, calls her Aleela (“she cries”), a pet name she had as a child, which touches her. But her father hasn’t come to greet her, and when Rachel reaches the farm, she sees another woman there, Sara, whom he never mentioned in his letters. It takes no time for Sara to let Rachel know that she shares her father’s bed, runs everything (including him), and plans to marry him. And rather than ease the shock, Sara takes the first chance to ask Rachel privately, “Why did you come?” Aleela will be doing a lot of crying, it seems.

I love McVeigh’s premise and the way she sets it up, with potent economy and subtlety. She knows how to spin a riveting narrative so that the tension never flags, and she devotes this skill to advance her political themes, embodied in Sara, who grew up in Nairobi, hates rural Kenya, which she calls “barren,” and holds herself distant from and superior to anything African. That makes her as different as she could be from Rachel’s mother, and the young woman pays the price, both in what she’s lost and her putative stepmother’s authoritarian regime. Sara forbids her to spend so much time outdoors on the land, urges her to dress in a more “feminine” way, and openly questions whether Rachel’s absence of fear or hatred for Africans means she’s been spoiled or tainted. McVeigh wants you to see that colonialism exists because of people like Sara.

Since I’ve spent time in Africa myself, though never had the good fortune to visit Kenya, I was delighted to read descriptions like this, of Rachel’s impressions of Mombasa:

Bougainvillea tumble over white walls, purple, orange, crimson red, amidst the trumpets of white datura flowers and clusters of pink hibiscus. Dhow captains spread their intricately woven carpets on the street for sale, beating out the dust in thick clouds. Porters in bare feet and white lunghis pad across the hot cobbles between piles of old newspaper and fish bones, past the Arab men dressed in white robes, who sit on low wooden stools drinking tea.

Despite all this brilliance, however, the characters ring false. Sara has no redeeming qualities whatsoever; at one point, Rachel even wonders why her father would have her around and ascribes it to sexual power. But that’s never developed enough to seem real. Moreover, making such a hateful, disagreeable person the mouthpiece for colonialism undermines takes the low road to simplicity and undermines what the author’s trying to say.

Ditto Steven Lockhart, the corrupt, abusive district officer who likes torturing Africans and warns Rachel that he’ll rape her one day. Of both Sara and Steven, I kept thinking, “They’re not really going to say or do that, will they?” only to slap my head when they really do. What’s more, for these characters to be as vicious as they are and get away with it requires Rachel and her father to be as passive as bricks. Not only don’t I believe that–each has taken bold steps in life–I find passivity uninteresting as a literary device.

What that means is that Leopard at the Door must sustain the tension via melodrama. I won’t go into the perils that McVeigh unleashes, which are truly terrifying. Even so, the novel’s Gothic aspects make it less powerful than it should be. That’s a terrible shame. As McVeigh notes in a postscript (and contrary to widely held belief), the facts suggest that the colonial administration wielded far more terror than the Mau Mau did, and in a manner flagrantly belying the rule of law the British pretended to uphold as a “civilizing” mission. I only wish this book had set the record straight in a more nuanced, three-dimensional manner.

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

Fathers and Sons: Ithaca

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Review: Ithaca, by Patrick Dillon
Pegasus, 2016. 264 pp. $26

Imagine a boy reaching the age of sixteen, never having met his father but having heard the most incredible stories of his heroism in battle, strength, daring, leadership, and cleverness. The boy is certain he shares none of these qualities, except, perhaps, the last. But cleverness alone won’t protect his mother, who’s besieged by oafish, ambitious suitors she can’t get rid of, and who eat up whatever wealth the father left behind when he went to war–the boy’s inheritance. The only hope the son can cling to, and it’s not much, is that his father will, no, must return and put things right. But that hope competes against anger at the father’s irresponsibility and selfishness for staying away so long. And when an old friend passes through, he lets drop a remark like a lightning bolt: Your father’s a liar.

Slaughter of Penelope's suitors by Odysseus, Telemachus, and Eumeus, ca. 330 BCE (Courtesy Louvre, via Wikimedia Commons)

Slaughter of Penelope’s suitors by Odysseus, Telemachus, and Eumeus, ca. 330 BCE (Courtesy Louvre, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is the premise to Dillon’s inventive, gripping take on Odysseus’s return to Ithaca following the Trojan War, except that the key figure here is Telemachus, the son. At once a coming-of-age story and a narrative about martial charisma, Ithaca asks, What is the measure of a man? Fighting is the way of Telemachus’s world, but he’s never learned how; Odysseus wasn’t there to teach him. To be sure, the warriors who plague his mother and drive her deeper and deeper within herself give their calling a poor reputation. They’re vain, pompous, rude, and coarse, abusive to their subordinates (or those whom they’d like to make subordinate), and, if they perceive a slight, will kill by way of answer. Naturally, young Telemachus hates and mistrusts them, and would never want to be like them:

I . . . look down at. . . the washing lines festooned with young men’s clothes, at the tents made of carpets draped over furniture dragged from the great hall, at the targets daubed on the walls, the piles of smashed jars, broken sticks and abandoned wine-skins. I breathe in the stench rising from the pit they use as a toilet, and the fire of sawn-up furniture whose smoke is already dirtying the clean morning air. . . I don’t want to think about what I’ve just seen: a man killed casually in a knife fight over a girl, his body left lying in a pool of blood. I try to remember what the courtyard looked like when I was little.

But he also fears them and hates his powerlessness, and he worries what will happen to his mother and himself should these quarrelsome guests ever put aside their rivalries to act in concert. Reluctantly, he leaves Ithaca to search for Odysseus, and his first stop is Pylos, where old Nestor rules, his father’s good friend and comrade-in-arms. Nestor has no news, but he wants to help. He sends his daughter, Polycaste, a girl of Telemachus’s age, to guide the boy to Sparta and its king, Menelaus, the victor of the Trojan War. His ships range all over Greek and foreign waters, so if anyone knows what happened to Odysseus, Menelaus will.

The journey entails much more than a visit to a powerful lord, however, and Dillon turns his skill and insight toward a main theme of the novel: how the ability to fight defines masculinity and sexual power. In a switch, Polycaste is the warrior, whereas Telemachus hardly knows how to hold a sword. (Wouldn’t it have to be that way, or Nestor would never have put them together?) The author portrays Menelaus as a braggart and a bore, but he’s also a miserable soul who possesses everything in the world except happiness. It’s a terrific characterization.

The narrative shifts into Odysseus’s frame, as he lodges with a Phoenician trader and his wife, recovering until he’s fit to make the final voyage to Ithaca. Again, Dillon explores the sexual power theme, as he shows the trader’s daughter, Nausicaa, drooling over the shipwrecked hero. But the others react very differently, and though they feel the draw of Odysseus’s words when he tells of his travels and wars, they privately reserve judgment. Is it possible that he’s lying about details or even entire exploits, an uncertainty that goes back to the question that plagues Telemachus? And even if what Odysseus says is true, do his adventures always suggest cleverness and a deft hand, or do greed, bungling, and poor seamanship play a part?

Ithaca is a fascinating tale, even–especially–if you’ve read the Odyssey or know the myth.

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

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Darktown

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Review: Darktown, by Thomas Mullen
Atria, 2016. 371 pp. $26

Atlanta, late 1940s, a dark night. Two police officers on foot patrol see a black woman in a car driven by a white man, who appears to have struck her. The woman manages to escape the car, but soon after, she turns up dead in an abandoned lot.

If this premise reminds you of a conventional mystery, Darktown is anything but. First of all, the two officers are black, part of a grudging concession by the postwar city government to a small but growing presence of African-American voters. And when I say grudging, I mean that the Atlanta Police Department would rather collectively bite the head off a rattler than accept the presence of these men, who number eight in all. If there’s a way to see them dismissed, convicted of spurious crimes, or left for dead in an alley, the unreconstructed Confederates will find it.

Atlanta Negro Voters League, 1949 (Courtesy New Georgia Encyclopedia; not in public domain)

Atlanta Negro Voters League, 1949 (courtesy New Georgia Encyclopedia; not in public domain)

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, the two officers who witness the woman’s attempt to flee, have already been bound and gagged metaphorically. Like other police, they wear uniforms and badges and carry weapons. But the rules restrict them to black neighborhoods, where they patrol on foot; they have no squad car. They may not investigate crimes, only report them. They may not arrest white suspects—even to try to detain them would be futile–and to have anyone booked, they must call for backup, which may or may not arrive. They may not enter police headquarters, and their “station” is a YMCA basement, where rain leaks down the walls inside.

At the same time, leading voices within the black community demand that they combat the many brutalities white society inflicts, whereas the people the officers arrest accuse them of doing the white man’s job. Why can’t they just look the other way? It’s a no-win situation. Lucius and Tommy not only feel weighed down by competing expectations, they suffer the knowledge that every interaction between black and white may combust at any moment–and if it does, they’ll be blamed.

They were silent as they rode through downtown. They passed restaurants that would not have served them, some of whose waiters or chefs would attack Boggs if he dared walk in. . . . He passed office towers that only granted admittance to Negroes who shined shoes or cleaned bathrooms. He passed white women who would no doubt scream if he made eye contact with them. ‘Reckless eyeballing’ was the official charge police filed in such cases. . . .

Despite all this, however, Lucius and Tommy investigate the young woman’s death and run into heaps of trouble. They do have one ally, though, Dennis Rakestraw, a white rookie cop who may just be more progressive than his peers, and who does some of the inside work that Lucius and Tommy are forbidden to undertake. But their partnership, such as it is, remains uneasy–Mullen conveys that tension very well–and Rakestraw faces significant obstacles of his own. Moreover, every step of the investigation puts more people in jeopardy, several of whom become victims.

For Lucius especially, the son of a prominent preacher, the cost becomes so heavy that he can no longer see where true justice lies, or say for certain that it’s worth the price. And yet he’s aware that he’s a symbol, for his lineage and his uniform, and that if he were to give in, the loss would affect everyone. For his partner, though, the issue is less ambiguous. Tommy’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was lynched for wearing his uniform and marching in a veterans’ parade. To the son, a man who calls himself a man demands justice.

Among the many pleasures and nuances of Darktown is how Mullen compares these two characters’ views, social backgrounds, and dreams. When Tommy attends a party at Lucius’s house, he’s glad he’s dipped into his savings to buy new clothes:

He felt newly conscious of his dropped g’s and propensity for cursing as he spoke with this doctor and that owner of a barbershop empire. He noticed watches and cuff links. More than once a mildly disdainful look faded when he mentioned that he was one of the city’s new police officers, at which point his unpolished qualities suddenly became praiseworthy.

I don’t want to quibble with such an extraordinary novel, but I wish Mullen had found different, less miraculous ways to resolve the story. That’s a drawback, I suppose, of creating drop-dead desperation, but with everything else seeming so real, I had to wonder at how things work out. I also object to a couple of cheap tricks Mullen inserts at the end of two cliff-hanging chapters; he’s too good a writer to need theatrics.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific book.

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

Struggle for Redemption: I Will Send Rain

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Review: I Will Send Rain, by Rae Meadows
Holt, 2016. 253 pp. $26

It’s 1934 in Mulehead, Oklahoma, and the Bell family, having watched their crops and their neighbors’ wither and die in perennial drought, now face another, undreamed-of terror: the dust that destroys whatever the heat and grasshoppers have missed. As other families give up and head to California, the Bells stay put; it’s as if Meadows has reimagined The Grapes of Wrath, depicting a family born to suffer. Samuel, the good-hearted but rigid-thinking father and husband, believes that God is punishing them, and as he loses himself in religion, his wife, Annie, drifts away. Trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, she dreams of a different life, a different man, anything to escape the crushing, gray sameness.

A farmer and his two sons brave a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936; Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

A farmer and his two sons brave a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936; Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Her children are what tether her to Mulehead and Samuel. They have Fred, a bright, exuberant eight-year-old who can’t speak but communicates by writing notes and with gestures. Like many children, he sees more than he understands or can express (and Meadows uses him expertly as a catalyst to derive tension from secrets kept or revealed). Fred’s older sister, Barbara Ann, known as Birdie, is almost sixteen, and she takes after her still-attractive mother in her looks and urge to break free. Headstrong and sensual, Birdie convinces herself that she’s in love with Cy, the boy next door. But she also wants to live and can’t wait for the future, a state of mind that Meadows describes perfectly:

Life was mostly about remembering or waiting, Birdie thought. Remembering when things were better, waiting for things to get better again. There was never a now, never a time when you said, ‘This is it.’ You thought there would be that time–when you turned sixteen, when Cy finally kissed you, when school got out–but then you ended up waiting for something else.

Take Birdie’s desires for freedom and experience, throw in a callow boy, and you can guess what will happen to her, even if you don’t read the jacket flap and its ominous, obvious hint. Likewise, since Fred has asthma, for which there’s no known cure or treatment–even if the Bells had the money to pay–you have to wonder what havoc the dust storms will wreak on the poor lad. And as if that weren’t portent enough, Annie has already lost one child, who lived a week after birth. Not a day passes that she doesn’t feel the pain.

I feel two ways about the overly predictable, heartbreaking story. First and foremost, I admire I Will Send Rain for its fierce honesty. The Dust Bowl was a tragedy, and Meadows refuses to make nice with it, which means that nobody escapes. The characters have to struggle just like anyone else and can’t expect a benevolent authorial hand to bail them out. The writing, though spare, packs a wallop, and the author uses her skilled economy to convey a remarkable depth and breadth of one family’s experience, capturing the universal in the specific. Beautifully done.

However, once the sequence of tragedies grabs you by the throat, what then? Since they’re predictable, the only question is how the Bells will deal with them, and here, Meadows has a difficult choice. Does she keep the pressure on, showing no more quarter than Nature, or does she relent? If she keeps the pressure on, does the book become too painful to read and ultimately unsatisfying? But if she relents in hopes of letting her characters find redemption, does that compromise the fierce honesty that put them in trouble in the first place?

I think Meadows wants it both ways, but read the book to see whether you agree. Specifically, I find the resolution illogical, given that Samuel’s a Bible-thumper and Annie’s a minister’s daughter. After all, Samuel takes it into his head that God is testing him, as with Noah, and that he must build an ark. As a literary conceit, that one’s dubious, but it also suggests that Samuel’s morality has been fired in an ancient kiln and is therefore unlikely to bend. Then again, I understand Samuel less than any other character; he seems to have little or no inner life, nor to want one. I do like how he tries to involve Fred in his projects and share small secrets, which makes him more human as a father. But the way the novel unfolds, I expect a confrontation or two that somehow don’t happen, and I think that’s a mistake.

All the same, I Will Send Rain has a lot going for it, and even its flaws are worth thinking about.

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