Stage Mama: On the Roof Top


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Review: On the Roof Top, by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
HarperCollins, 2022. 290 pp. $29

San Francisco, 1953. Vivian Jones, who fled Louisiana because the Ku Klux Klan murdered her father, has a plan. Widowed mother of three daughters, who range in age from twenty to twenty-four, Vivian has decided that they will become professional singers, a trio. The Salvations, she calls them, and they’re a favorite act at the clubs in the Fillmore, their Black neighborhood.

But Vivian wants stardom for her girls, capital S—nothing less will do—so she’s hoping and praying a talent manager she knows will shepherd the Salvations to the big time. She’s also counting on her children to do whatever it takes, whether it’s the hours of practice on the rooftop of their building or keeping their eyes front and center on the dream.

The Fillmore Auditorium, renamed in 1954, has been an important venue in San Francisco for arts and music since its construction in 1912 as the Majestic (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

However, children don’t do what their parents plan for them, and Vivian has never bothered to ask Ruth, Esther, or Chloe what they want. Rather, she’s imposed her will with a discipline a drill sergeant would envy and noted their progress—when it occurs—with satisfaction. The reader knows long before she does that her vision of salvation isn’t theirs; the daughters get the chance to have their own narratives in the novel, but not out loud in Mama’s hearing.

Ruth, attending nursing school like her mother before her, has a boyfriend to whom she’s more attached than Vivian knows. Esther works at a bookstore, where she reads voraciously and thinks about world problems, especially what it means to be Black in a country where white people have the power. Chloe, the baby at twenty, hasn’t found her niche yet, but you sense that when she does, this most dutiful of the daughters will no longer deserve that description.

What’s more, the City Council wants to take over the Fillmore, knock down the buildings, and kick out the residents. Pressure builds slowly for Vivian and her neighbors to sell out and leave. What a crushing blow that is, yet—perhaps surprisingly—Vivian pays little heed to the threat. But Esther does.

On the Roof Top takes a while to move; it’s not clear right away what the novel’s about, or where it’s going. Part of the problem, I think, is that despite the lovingly detailed characterizations of four women, there’s little backstory to ground the reader. Hints and allusions from the past help lock in the present, but few actual scenes, so it took time for me to grasp the characters and become invested in their futures.

Even so, I urge you to stay with this first-rate family drama. Sexton has written a full-fledged family, something that all too few novelists succeed at, with each daughter recognizably different. Each has to work around her domineering mother, and how that happens makes a worthy tale. They may not have defined their dreams yet, but they know instinctively to balance their search for whatever that is against their loyalty to Vivian, to the Salvations, and, to a lesser extent, to their siblings.

I like how Sexton depicts their rivalries, which can be fierce; in general, she sugarcoats nothing. The Fillmore as a neighborhood may seem idealized. But the author has re-created a slice of a big city that feels like a world unto itself, with eccentric characters, resentments, caring, and inertia, and that’s true to life.

Vivian’s the force to the story, though, as you would surmise:

Yes, Vivian had trained those girls as furiously as she’d twisted the cotton from the bolls back home. But it would all be worth it one day. . . . There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t envision the reward, the baby blue Cadillac, the mink coats, the diamonds in her ears nearly the size of her fists. She wouldn’t need to stand between a white woman’s legs urging her to push out a child that would grow up just to tear her down. She wouldn’t need to inform the new mothers that she wasn’t there to mind the babies, only to keep them alive.

She lets the passion she pours into the Salvations consume her at the expense of her own desires. She misses her late husband daily, and though her mutual attraction to the widower preacher at her church prompts jokes and knowing smiles in the Fillmore, Vivian’s afraid to love again. That would make her vulnerable to loss. Instead, she tries to construct a family impervious to such losses and to demands that would tax her dignity and that of her children. I can see that.

What doesn’t fit is how this controlling, somewhat self-absorbed mother handles her daughters’ rebellions. I don’t want to give too much away, but she turns inward rather than explode, suddenly becoming emotionally pained and vulnerable, when she’s built her life on preventing that. It’s as if Sexton, having pulled few punches through the novel, pulls this one, maybe seduced by the notion of redeeming Vivian. I’m not sure that’s plausible.

Even so, On the Roof Top is a wonderful book, and I recommend it.

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

Lying About a Death: Florence Adler Swims Forever


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Review: Florence Adler Swims Forever, by Rachel Beanland
S&S, 2020. 304 pp. $26

In June 1934, twenty-year-old Florence Adler of Atlantic City, New Jersey, is training to swim the English Channel. But one day, during a routine practice, she drowns within sight of the shore. Even with no other disturbances, such an accident would be heartbreaking. But of course there’s more—and for that reason, or despite it, her family makes an unusual decision, which adds a sharp edge to the story.

Since Florence’s older sister, Fannie, is on forced hospital bed rest in her seventh month of pregnancy—and since Fannie lost a previous child, born prematurely—the Adlers choose to keep her ignorant of the death until after she gives birth. They go to great lengths, suppressing reports in the press, swearing beach lifeguards and hospital nurses to secrecy, and hounding the youngest Adler, seven-year-old Augusta (Gussie), to keep her mouth shut.

Bain News Service photo of Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel in 1927, the first woman to do so (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From this elegant premise comes a gripping family drama about life and death, sacrifice and dreams, and coming to terms with limitations. I like novels that pack a punch with only a few moving parts, and Florence Adler is one. The deceptively simple idea, withholding news about a death, throws this already fractured family into chaos, exposing layer after layer of their loyalties and resentments, not all of them pretty.

Beanland’s refusal to rescue her characters is one of the pleasures found here. Nobody’s too good; everyone’s got weaknesses and obligations from which they hide. Even the most decent character freezes up and refuses to speak his heart or act when he should. Young Gussie, though she has her charms, can behave like a brat at times. And the worst of the Adlers, though entitled and dishonest, nevertheless has his moments. This is a rounded, believable cast.

True to an ensemble performance, each of the seven narrates sections of the novel, a technique that tests an author’s mettle. Are the voices distinct? Do the sections overlap too much or too little? Does the narrative stall? I’m glad to say that none of those issues mar Florence Adler, though I prefer some voices to others.

Much tension derives from keeping sequestered, bed-ridden Fannie in the dark. How cruel, I think, an idea of dubious merit that only controlling parents (my least favorite kind) could have dreamed up. But I believe these parents implicitly. They reason that Fannie’s a nervous type; left unspoken, though shown, is how little help or support she gets from her husband, Isaac, the aforementioned entitled and dishonest member of the family.

However, when the family views Fannie as weak, they encourage her to act that way—which serves their purposes, though they don’t recognize this. I like this setup very much, which feels absolutely true to life.

But that’s not the only paradox for Fannie, who, having lost her last child, feels that bringing this one to term is a make-or-break judgment on her, an unfair burden that raises the stakes. But what else has she known? Furthermore, her high blood pressure alarms her doctor, a concern that makes the expectant mother even more anxious. Yet, as he’s aware, a key source of worry is that Florence, with whom Fannie has quarreled recently, hasn’t been to see her and never seems available.

A deeper, longer-standing worry, however, is Fannie’s husband. Like most troubles in the Adler family, it’s not to be spoken of:

When Isaac first started taking Fannie out, a million years ago now, he hadn’t had two cents to rub together. He liked to promise her that, once he was a little more established, he’d be able to buy her steak dinners at the Ritz but, in the meantime, she often returned from her dates hungry enough that she had to go straight to the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. She tried to tell him she didn’t need fancy dinners, so long as they were happy, but over time, his promises just grew bigger.

Another problem stressing the family, also not spoken of, is Anna Epstein, daughter of a family friend, whom Joseph Adler, the father, has sponsored on a student visa to get her out of Nazi Germany. Anna’s frantic about her parents, who, despite Joseph’s efforts, can’t get visas—and the major obstacle is American officialdom. They don’t want Jews entering the United States.

I go back and forth on Anna’s voice and character; I’m not sure I understand her arc, and her share of the novel’s resolution feels less credible than the rest. But I like that Beanland has handled Jewish themes and concerns straight on, with knowledge and understanding. And if Anna herself doesn’t always persuade me, her place in the story feels right, as the young woman who happens to be about the age of the late Florence, which is enough to upset a certain character.

Florence Adler Swims Forever is a story that takes risks, from an author who cares to delve past her characters’ surfaces. I highly recommend it.

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

Murder in the Mandate: The Red Balcony


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Review: The Red Balcony, by Jonathan Wilson
Schocken, 2023. 274 pp. $27

In March 1933, a Jewish resident of Palestine is murdered on a beach by two men. His widow, the only eyewitness, changes her testimony several times within hours, variously claiming that the assailants were Arabs, not Jews, and vice versa. Either answer would have been plausible politically, for her late husband was a marked man, hated on all sides.

His crime? Having negotiated with Josef Goebbels, propaganda minister in the newly installed Nazi government, a plan by which German Jews might emigrate to Palestine while retaining a modicum of their assets, contrary to the policy in force of stripping everything they have.

Despite the publisher’s statement that The Red Balcony has historical basis, I find the story of such negotiations dubious. But whether they took place doesn’t matter. If they did, some Jews in Palestine would have strenuously objected to dealing with the Nazis, whereas Arabs would have opposed further Jewish immigration. Those circumstances provide a motive for murder.

British troops disperse Arab rioters, October 1933, American Colony (Jerusalem), Photo Department, location unclear (courtesy Library of Congress; public domain)

Into this maelstrom drops Ivor Castle, a British Jew who has come to Palestine against his better judgment. Trained in law, Ivor has a solid sense of right and wrong, which his new surroundings test to the utmost. He’s assigned to help the well-known Phineas Baron defend two Russian-Jewish immigrants accused of the murder. That means Ivor does the legwork, while Phineas hobnobs with British colonial officials.

A key witness for the defense promises to be Tsiona Kerem, an artist who frequents a café where the accused claim they were drinking at the time of the murder. If Ivor can get Tsiona to corroborate their testimony, they’ll go free. But she flatly refuses to tell him anything.

Instead, she sleeps with him multiple times, tantalizing him but declaring plainly that he’ll never get what he wants from her, which could refer to love, not just the statement that would free his clients. Already in love, or thinking he is, Ivor dares not press her, because whenever he does, she withdraws, which pains him greatly.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Ivor’s not her only lover. It doesn’t help that Palestine seems like a corrupt, lawless place to him, despite its allure and magnificence—and, by the way, that the defendants are probably guilty.

There’s little mystery involved here, then, but that doesn’t matter. The Red Balcony often reads like a thriller, and even though worlds aren’t at stake, the pages turn rapidly, as reversals come thick and fast. I like the wry humor, as Ivor repeatedly gets himself in hot water, a Jewish innocent abroad who can’t figure out his identity, even in the one place in the world where he might feel whole.

The political differences among his coreligionists baffle him too, and well they might. The groups they represent seem like precursors of those that would barely tolerate each other during the fight for independence in 1947-48.

By contrast, Baron, also Jewish, doesn’t even bother to try to figure out who he is, instead playing different roles, depending on whom he’s with. To Ivor, he avows his resentment of the anti-Semitism endemic to their native land; among colonial officials, he’s English to the teeth. In all this, the narrative feels pitch-perfect.

However, Ivor’s bumbling and refusal to speak up for himself wear thin after a while. The Yiddish word nebbish fits him perfectly; he’s practically spineless, helpless in the face of demands of just about any kind. I got tired of how he hides his feelings whenever anyone asks, then apologizes for having failed to provide what was wanted. As a matter of storytelling, though, the trouble he gets into drives the novel.

I wish the narrative tone didn’t resort to archness as often as it does; too much of that feels like a pose. And though I like the writing, Wilson sometimes favors obscure words when a plain one will do, including at least three I couldn’t find in my dictionary.

Still, The Red Balcony gives a marvelously evocative picture of Palestine during the British Mandate:

Almost all Ivor’s impressions of Tel Aviv had been of an unregulated place, free from its moorings. It wasn’t only the flowing eclecticism of its architecture—the houses frequently had no numbers, women smoked in public and wore bathing suits on the bus. In England he had been closed-in by taboo, a suffocating mix of British reserve and Anglo-Jewish restraint. Here he was free, the muddle of his identity of a piece with the town itself.

Wilson also has the colonials down pat. They wear the wrong clothes and eat the wrong food for the climate, symbolic of their inability to understand that they don’t belong there—yet smug in their superiority.

I’ve read several novels about Palestine during or before the war for independence, but this one’s evocative in its own way and, unusually, focuses on religious identity—of a man who’s not religious. That’s original.

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

Civil War in Ireland: The Winter Guest


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Review: The Winter Guest, by W. C. Ryan
Arcade, 2022. 321 pp. $27

A dangerous, painful task brings Tom Harkin from Dublin to Kilcogan House, a now-crumbling country manse, in winter 1921. An IRA ambush has attacked a car near the house, killing a high-ranking British officer; an innocent bystander along for the ride; and Maud Prendeville, eldest daughter of the house, who wasn’t meant to be traveling that night.

However, the IRA insists that the volley that riddled the car didn’t kill Maud—minutes later, witnesses say, they heard a single shot, presumably from a different hand. The distinction matters politically, because Maud was a heroine of the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of 1916, and such honors are not forgotten. If the IRA were responsible for her death, the crime would embarrass them and provide propaganda for the British forces attempting to suppress Irish nationalism.

National Army troops aboard ship during Irish Civil War, 1922 (courtesy National Library of Ireland on The Commons via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As an IRA intelligence officer, Tom’s well placed to understand the considerations implicitly and knows what few other do—that Maud, among others, was trying to arrange an arms purchase for the IRA in the United States. What’s more, she was Tom’s erstwhile fiancée, back when they were university students before the Great War. While he was an officer in the Dublin Fusiliers serving in France, she broke off their engagement, by mail. Consequently, he has more than one reason to investigate, and her death feels deeply personal.

But in this civil war between Irish nationalists and those who oppose independence from Britain, neither side shows quarter or much regret for innocents caught in the crossfire. For the most part, Tom can count on people not to care to know about his connection to the IRA, and to keep their suspicions to themselves, if they have any.

That’s for the most part. A betrayal from any source will see him tortured and killed, and he can never rule out the possibility that one or more of his acquaintances are playing a double game. Nobody, no matter what their loyalties, believes his cover story that he’s working for an insurance company that holds a policy on Maud, even though he has papers to show.

Not surprisingly, more than one person warns him that no good can come of his investigation, only more murders, yet Tom persists, an old trope. But in a twist, he suffers what would today be called PTSD, as ordinary sensory perceptions remind him of his wartime trauma and of Maud, the latter appearing as a ghost or in troubled dreams. I’m not much for gothic, but the PTSD makes perfect sense, and Ryan conveys the tactile First World War experience as well as any writer I’ve read.

This brilliant, gripping mystery/thriller (the novel has elements of both) offers many pleasures, including atmosphere:

If anything, the fog becomes thicker as they make their way slowly through the town—the horse’s hooves sounding like a muffled echo of themselves. The few shops and pubs glow like islands in the mist, while somewhere a church bell rings, its mournful sound seeming to come from behind them one moment, and from up ahead the next. A donkey cart loaded down with milk churns looms towards them from the other side of the street. The flat-capped farmer holding the traces looks in their direction with such a blank expression that Harkin is not even sure that he has seen them.

As with the sterling prose, the characterizations are spot-on. Ryan takes pains with every figure on stage for more than a minute, including the villains, which I always like to see. The bad guys are truly bad, but they believe in what they’re doing. As for the majority, who fall in neither the nationalist nor pro-British camp (at least not obviously), they each have particularities and, often, something to hide that one side or other will object to, if not both.

The storytelling feels entirely sure-handed. Early on, Tom corroborates the single-shot theory, but that’s less helpful than it might be, not least because he has to discover who could have known Maud was riding in the car. Several suspects emerge, but as soon as he settles on them as possibilities, facts turn up that challenge his assumptions. Such “no—and furthermore” is constant in The Winter Guest, and Tom, though an observant detective, makes mistakes through false assumptions.

Meanwhile, the ever-present chance that he’ll be unmasked as IRA ratchets up the tension. Much of his investigation hinges on delicate diplomacy, as he decides how much to reveal, and to whom, to obtain the information he seeks. He also has to cut deals with people who might suspect who he is, but, for their own reasons, wish to see justice done for Maud.

I would have liked a hint as to why Maud broke off her engagement to Tom, and for him to struggle more with that rejection, particularly the way she handled it. I also find the obligatory confrontation between Tom and the bad guys not entirely credible, with a hint of melodrama. But those are small complaints about an exceptional novel.

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

Dust Bowl Mystery: Funeral Train


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Review: Funeral Train, by Laurie Loewenstein
Akashic, 2022. 263 pp. $38

One evening in 1935, a passenger train derails near Vermilion, a small town in the Oklahoma panhandle. The wreck causes fearsome damage and fills the hospital with the wounded and dying. Sheriff Temple Jennings is overwhelmed, not just with the enormity of the tragedy but its personal nature for him: his beloved wife, Etha, was on that train, and he panics when he can’t find her among the survivors.

Luckily, he soon retrieves his bearings, for the derailment may have been no accident, and there are many threads to follow before he can penetrate the mystery. Meanwhile, his young deputy, Ed McCance, locates Etha and sees her to an ambulance, but the sheriff can’t stop worrying about her. That anxiety doubles when the doctor insists that she stay flat on her back, something she’s never done—and for Christmas, a few days away, her niece and her drunk, deadbeat husband are coming to visit. Etha would move heaven and earth for them.

Law enforcement in those parts usually involves dealing with moonshiners. The federal government may have repealed Prohibition, but local law forbids any alcoholic drink stronger than beer, and beer’s enough to bring about drunk and disorderly behavior.

Also, scarcity arising from the depression and Dust Bowl has influenced certain citizens who might have been law-abiding to stray from the straight and narrow. Scams and dodges come to light all the time. And then there’s Gwendolyn, a heifer who wanders in the roadway, causing trouble for motorists, because her owner can’t manage to keep his fences repaired.

Naturally, these concerns fall away once the derailment happens. And the next night, a woman is murdered while walking her dog in her backyard. Since she lived near the tracks, is her death connected to the railroad sabotage—if that’s what occurred—or a separate crime?

A chief pleasure of Funeral Train is how Loewenstein portrays a Dust Bowl town and its denizens. You can practically feel the grit between your fingers, taste the desperation, the search for sweet or pleasant moments amid the dreariness, the thin margins of just getting by. The author shows the tavern, the hospital, the soda fountain run by the local go-getter, the chicken farmer ornery because he’s deep in debt and his wife has run off with the kids.

Also, the lawmen have edges and corners, something not every mystery writer bothers with. Temple’s deputy, McCance, was apparently down and out a year before the novel begins, but the sheriff has taken a chance on him. Ed’s trying hard to learn all he can, make a better life for himself and his young bride. You see both lawmen make mistakes and sweat from unexpected danger, not at all sure they’ll make it. I like that too–and the subplot of the visiting niece feels real.

Loewenstein also pays attention to Jim Crow. The Black passengers on the train suffered the worst of the accident, because their segregated car, made of wood rather than metal and in terrible shape, was hooked up right behind the locomotive. In the crash, the car collapsed like a concertina, and the people trapped within got flooded with scalding water from the boiler. The railroad—the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, or AT&SF—shows complete indifference to them.

Among the characters flowing through the novel is Claude Steele, the detective the railroad sends. Temple meets him when he arrives at the station:

Most of the AT&SF policemen that Temple ran into over the years were ex-cops who continued to dress the part: spit-and shine uniforms, brass buttons, epaulets, and visored caps bearing shields. None of the travelers matched that look. A stranger who did approach him, hand out, was outfitted in a bulky topcoat, woolen suit jacket, and greasy vest. Sagging gray trousers overflowed a pair of unbuckled rubber boots—their clasps flapping with each step. Temple swallowed his surprise.

He’s quite a character, Claude, obsessed with railroads. His hobby is collecting railroad spikes, which come in different designs, though that’s changing in the march toward standardization, which he mourns. No one can escape hearing about the various kinds, including the fortyish woman working in the boardinghouse where he rooms, who actually seems interested. As you might guess, Claude’s also enamored of his detective skills, and since Temple, Ed, and he must team up, that affects the story.

This spanking new 1935 prototype of an AT&SF diesel locomotive, not introduced until the following year (courtesy Acme News Service, published by Mexia Weekly Herald, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright not renewed; public domain)

By now, it’s probably obvious that where some mystery writers toss in historical details and atmosphere almost as an afterthought, Loewenstein focuses on them. Though that gives Funeral Train a rare sense of time and place, I thought one aspect of the mystery a little too cut-and-dried. But it’s a gripping story whose rough edges feel real, depicting people no better than they should be. I recommend it.

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

Where History Meets Fiction


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This week, I’ve published two essays about the historical background to Lonely Are the Brave, my novel about a Great War veteran set in rural Washington in 1919.

The first essay, in Historical Novels Review, connects historical fact to my conception of the story and characters, including topics as various as fear of Bolshevism, the laws that required a woman to obtain a man’s cosignature to open a bank account, and theories of childrearing that will make you laugh.

The second essay, a guest appearance on the blog “History Imagined,” traces the myth that the nation went to war to protect American womanhood, and the link between that idea and the sinking of the Lusitania.

Thanks for reading.

Impressions: Beyond That, the Sea


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Review: Beyond That, the Sea, by Laura Spence-Ash
Celadon, 2023. 348 pp. $28

In 1940, as London’s taking a beating from German bombs, Beatrix Thompson’s parents make a difficult, painful decision, sending her, at age eleven, to live out the war with a family near Boston. How this evacuation happens isn’t explained—you’re asked to take it on trust, and apparently, the historical record supports it—but the rest unfolds as naturally as you please.

Landing among the Gregory family, Bea, an only child, now lives with two brothers—William, thirteen, and Gerald, nine. Ethan, their father, is somewhat withdrawn and controlling, a schoolmaster who takes himself too seriously and never looks at his wife, Nancy, long enough to realize he’s stifling her.

No bombs falling here: streetcar in South Boston, 1940 (courtesy City of Boston Archives via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But Nancy, apparently the prime mover behind Bea’s presence in their home, is warm and attentive. Aside from tending the boys, she loves nothing better than to care for the girl, whether that means baking cookies or muffins, shopping for a new dress, tucking her in at night, or shepherding her past the social hurdles of a new country.

Just as Bea represents the daughter Nancy always wanted, Nancy’s the kinder, more demonstrative mother Bea has never had. But the girl understands that the life she now enjoys derives partly from the Gregorys’ financial resources, greater than her parents’, and American peacetime plenty, at which her eyes pop.

However, there’s more: the Gregorys also know how to have fun in ways Bea has never experienced. The high point comes during the summer, when the family vacations in Maine, in a house on an island all by itself. The girl learns to eat lobster, to swim, to bake, and to hold her own against two boys competing for her attention.

Consequently, you have to wonder what will happen when America joins the war and again, when Bea returns to London.

I like this premise, which offers plenty of chances for conflict, as with how her parents feel reading her letters; the boys’ sibling rivalry; and Nancy’s instant, consuming love for Bea, which grates on her prissy husband. Nevertheless, I like Beyond That, the Sea less than I wanted to.

Still, there are pleasures here, and first among these is the prose. It’s spare, economical, understated, creating mood and feeling in a few words, as with this early passage in which Bea struggles to write her parents:

She wants to tell them about the colors here: the way the yellow leaves cover the ground under the trees; the tiny purple flowers on the wallpaper on her bedroom wall; the golden raspberries from the garden that ooze out of the breakfast muffins. But she can never find the words. Or the words are there but it feels wrong to share them. She imagines the two of them sitting on the couch in the dark flat . . . . Or she sees them heading to the shelter beneath their building, to their spot a few feet from the unsteady pine steps. The smell of urine and the skittering of the rats.

That economy extends to the narrative, which spans decades lightly, in an impressionistic way. Chapters last only two or three pages, each through the eyes of a different character—seven third-person narrators during the war years, from both sides of the Atlantic. In keeping with the understated approach, Spence-Ash seems to want the reader to think, to enter the story. I want that too.

But I don’t think she succeeds. The terse chapters can be frustrating—I want to know more, see more—and many skip around conflict rather than show it. Often, they begin after a confrontation that a previous chapter has set up, revealing the characters’ reactions to what has happened, a lot of telling after the fact. I have trouble entering a narrative like that, let alone get cozy in it.

The storytelling leaves the outside world at a distance too. Even in the London scenes, the war doesn’t seep into minds or souls; and after America joins the fight, the atmosphere around Boston changes very little. I like my historical fiction to put me up close to the mood and mindset of the time, if not the action. That doesn’t happen here.

In a way, the manner in which the narrative avoids conflict, historical or personal, suits the characters, practically none of whom have a clue how to connect, and who’d rather dance around a point of contention instead of facing it. That’s frustrating too.

The tight-lipped restraint would work better if the reader glimpsed what the characters wanted but couldn’t ask for. But Spence-Ash’s scenes, though they reveal what’s happening in a particular moment, feel transitory, skimming the surface. As a result, I don’t see these characters’ inner lives.

For instance, William, the older Gregory brother, appeals to Bea for his intent to go places, be someone. He’s restless, unsatisfied, passionate, angry. But what would going places look like? He never says; he just wants to be different from his parents.

Accordingly, Beyond That, the Sea, though poignant in moments, never builds for me. I sense no crescendo, no rush of feeling, and no particular immediacy. It’s an interesting story, but I’m not compelled.

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

Prisoners, Expatriates: The Piano Teacher


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Review: The Piano Teacher, by Janice K. Lee
Penguin, 2009. 326 pp. $15

Claire Pendleton, newly married, accompanies her engineer husband, Martin, to Hong Kong, where he has a job designing waterworks. The year is 1952, before modern feminism, so convention dictates that Claire will live like other expatriate wives, sheltered, waited on, and expected to look the part but have no life separate from their husbands’—perhaps no inner life at all.

Victoria, Hong Kong, 1950, unattributed photo (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But Claire married Martin because he asked, and because marriage lets her escape a dreary existence in an England still enduring wartime restrictions, not to mention her fault-finding, disagreeable parents. So though she’s used to retreating into the background, Claire has the chance to emerge—and, to an extent, she takes it.

Hired by a wealthy merchant family, the Chens, to teach their young daughter the piano, Claire winds up falling through a cultural and emotional rabbit hole. For no apparent reason, almost equivalent to how she married Martin, she enters an affair with Will Truesdale, the Chens’ chauffeur.

Will’s employment is unusual, given that Chinese never hire Europeans for household tasks, but that’s only one mystery of many. It’s obvious that Will has led a remarkable past in which he’s suffered, but Claire can never get anything from him except physical passion, which, to her surprise, she craves.

Over time, she learns to reexamine her preconceived notions and prejudices about race, “foreigners,” and her new home, but at first, Hong Kong terrifies her:

Sometimes she got the feeling that Hong Kong was too alive. It seemed unable to restrain itself. There were insects crawling everywhere, wild dogs on the hills, mosquitoes breeding furiously. They had made roads to the hillsides and buildings sprouted out of the ground, but nature strained at her boundaries—there were always sweaty, shirtless worker men chopping away at the greenery that seemed to grow overnight.

What Claire doesn’t know, and what Will refuses to talk about, is that more than a decade before, he had a torrid affair with a beautiful Eurasian woman, Trudy Liang, cousin to the Chens. This narrative, including what happens after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese conquest of Hong Kong, alternates with Claire’s. The reader knows what she doesn’t, including how the invaders imprison foreign nationals like Will, and how that changes him.

But Claire senses a secret behind his stone wall and believes, correctly, that he’s a person capable of great feeling—except that he won’t love her or admit it if he does. This hardened position is the engine behind The Piano Teacher. As the wartime and postwar narratives finally mesh, the tension rises, and the novel’s themes emerge with even greater sharpness.

Lee explores the boundaries between integrity and the willingness to do anything to survive terrible circumstances. Other characters refer to Trudy and Will as “survivors,” perhaps with admiration, but that may not be a compliment. Racism figures heavily in Trudy’s story, for, as a Eurasian woman, she’s “exotic,” which, to certain bigoted Europeans, elicits fascination mixed with contempt. The Japanese too have their own view of mixed-race people.

Lee does a terrific job portraying colonial attitudes, not least spite, envy, and a hollow sense of superiority, which emerges in a dozen prejudices. Nonentities at home become lords in Hong Kong—and, after a while, act entitled to their elevation. The author’s spare prose plays well here, as she shows much with few words, whereas what’s unsaid carries great weight.

However, if Will’s past is the engine driving the narrative, his refusal to share any of it with Claire drags it down like a millstone. He’s a tough character, not especially likable. I doubt he loves Trudy, either; their relationship feels too brittle for that, and he’d rather die than make himself vulnerable.

Between that and Claire’s inability to stick up for herself, I nearly stopped reading twice. Her character, at least, follows an arc—she grows into herself, a little—whereas he seems to take pride in never changing, which becomes tiresome.

I don’t understand why she has an affair with him, even less why she puts up with him for as long as she does. Their liaison serves the plot, but I think it would have done better—and looked less convenient—if he’d cracked just a little, even if he tightened up again afterward. Let Claire hope for a glimmer based on what’s happened between them, not simply her own wishes. And I wonder how everyone in Hong Kong except Martin knows they’re sleeping together.

I do like the story and the way Lee depicts prewar Hong Kong and what happens to it, which I’d never read about before. I also admire the author’s subtlety, mostly, because she refrains from spelling anything out, leaving much between the lines. I feel involved in the narrative that way. But I would have wanted more and clearer clues to show how and why certain things happen and would probably have liked the novel more had Lee provided them.

Disclaimer: I pulled this book off my shelf, where it had sat, unread, for more than twenty-five years.

Readers and Writers: An Alternative to Goodreads


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I’ve been trying out alternatives to Goodreads, and is one you might not have heard of. As a reader, I can scroll through myriad book categories (“The best books about __________”) and see recommendations that are informed and passionate.

As an author, if I create a category and write five brief, compelling descriptions of books that belong in it, I may list my bio and blurb of my own book. Nifty, no?

Romanian shepherd, 2006 (courtesy Friend of Darwinek via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

For what it’s worth, I called my category “The best books about men and women breaking unwritten rules.”

More Than a Muse: Leonora in the Morning Light


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Review: Leonora in the Morning Light, by Michaela Carter
S&S, 2021. 393 pp. $27

In 1937, twenty-year-old Leonora Carrington, would-be artist, meets the Surrealist painter Max Ernst in London. One eye blink later, they’re attracted; the average zoo possesses less animal pheromone than these two.

Defying her industrialist father, who disowns her, Leonora follows Ernst to Paris, where she tries to paint, sometimes succeeding, and to avoid her lover’s second wife, who assaults her physically in public.

Despite the pheromones, the lovers are a mismatch. Ernst is forty-six, more than twice her age, and probably couldn’t spell fidelity, never mind live up to it. Nobody around him does. His friends, the likes of Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Paul Éluard, swap sexual partners as if that game couldn’t hurt anybody who has an artistic soul, which makes Leonora fear she lacks one. Head over heels in love, she wants Max to divorce his wife and marry her. Good luck.

I’ll confess that this novel confuses me. I was expecting a story about one woman’s growth as an artist, which would no doubt entail her search for her own style and her fight for recognition in a field dominated by men who’d never accept a woman as anything but bedmate or muse. Indeed, Carter writes in her author’s note, “This is not the story of the Great Man’s Woman. This is the story of the Great Woman.”

Carrington’s 1963-64 painting, The Magical World of the Mayans, at the National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City. Carrington spent most of her life in Mexico. (Courtesy Ioppear via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons)

I wonder. Leonora in the Morning Light vacillates between the feminist/artist theme and Max Ernst’s star power, and since the novel focuses more on their love affair than Carrington’s artistic education, it might not have been a fair fight to begin with.

Perhaps that results, in part, from Ernst’s fame, as evidenced by the emphasis in the jacket flap copy and the pointless prologue, set in 1977, which tries to show how Carrington merits our attention regardless of her erstwhile lover. Moreover, half the book has little or nothing to do with art, recounting the principals’ belated flight from France in June 1940 after the German invasion.

To be fair, before the war, you do see Carrington at work and, even more often, dreaming compelling images that she tries to paint. Also, Ernst does guide her to find her artistic vision and praises her grasp of the surreal—though she feels, with some reason, that he’s stingy that way, when generosity would have cost little. Still, it’s plain that their affair influences her life as an artist.

However, it takes about a hundred pages for Leonora to start painting as if she means it. And Ernst, despite the magnetic attraction, is poison for her, which to me makes him repellent. Selfish, hungry for the limelight, unable to commit himself to her yet complaining when she’s not there when he needs her, he’s holding her back, and she can’t break away.

After they’ve moved to southern France, a home and studio she’s largely created and paid for, nothing will make him leave, even the war. The Germans won’t bother us, he insists, though he knows Hitler has personally branded him a “degenerate” and had his works burned. Besides, the light is so good for painting. She can leave if she wants, but he’s staying, and he won’t discuss it.

What Leonora in the Morning Light does accomplish, though, is to create a remarkably clear picture of artists and how they live, work, and think. Max’s Ernst’s first demonstration for her:

He rubbed the side of the pencil over the paper. . . .It was like dreams, she thought, how they live all day in your body, in the bones of your wrists and elbows, in the spongy tissues of your liver and your lungs. Your logical mind is oblivious to them, and only when you let go and give in to sleep do these dreams dare to show their faces, the way animals at the zoo come out at dawn and dusk, when the light itself is a kind of refuge.

Carter’s a poet, and the language throughout is unerring, whether to set a scene in a Parisian café, artists frolicking at an English cottage, or the desperate escapes after the invasion. I believe everything the characters say and do, which feels utterly natural, without any wink-wink, nudge-nudge because of their fame. Their flaws as well as their genius come through.

If you read Leonora in the Morning Light, be warned that there’s a rape scene. Leonora also has a psychotic break, in which she becomes delusional, involving long, excruciating (and tedious) sequences of images and bizarre events. This didn’t surprise me, because her gift for the surreal is so deep as to suggest fragile internal boundaries between self and exterior, reality and fantasy. Sooner or later, she’ll crack.

What did surprise me was the degree to which she recovers. After her attack, she does draw back from certain subjects and images she fears might push her back over the edge, but you sense she’ll be all right in the long run. I wonder how we can know that.

An intense, unusual novel, this, perhaps best approached as a peek into an artist’s soul.

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