A Serious Yarn: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

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Review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
HarperCollins, 2018. 484 pp. $29

It’s 1785, and Jonah Hancock, a Deptford shipping merchant of some means, receives unwelcome news: The captain of one of three ships he owns has sold it and its cargo to bring back a dead, preserved mermaid. Hancock doesn’t know what to do with his new treasure, and the likely financial loss terrifies him, even though he’s solvent. Playing to his fears, his controlling, self-absorbed sister accuses him of squandering the fortune their extended family (read: her children) depends on and will make their name a laughingstock. As a childless widower, you see, he’s got no one else to support, but, more to the point, Jonah has always tried to appease his sister, a thankless, impossible task. He’s sorely in want of backbone or spirit of adventure, but he doesn’t know where to find them—or even whether it’s advisable to look.

This illustration of P.T. Barnum’s alleged “Feejee Mermaid” first appeared in the New York Herald in 1842 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, to recoup his expenses, he puts the mermaid on display and creates a sensation. The money he receives from gawkers willing to pay for the privilege helps soothe his worries. More importantly, the exposure widens his social world, for the bawdy house that he’s licensed to show his mermaid is frequented by the rich and famous — and those who sell themselves to them. Crucial to the proceedings, the good Mr. Hancock, though scandalized at what he sees, meets the beautiful, accomplished courtesan Angelica Neal. Since the title tells you that Jonah will marry, she’s the likeliest candidate, if only because he meets nobody else.

What a risky authorial gambit, yielding up a crucial plot point, daring the reader to put the book down. But Gowar is more than equal to the challenge she sets herself, for how the two characters overcome first impressions makes for quite a story, with much “no — and furthermore” to block their way. Angelica, accustomed to baubles, flash, and excitement, shouldn’t be interested in Jonah for anything other than his money, and yet there’s more at work than that. Likewise, though Jonah has never met an obstacle he can’t run away from, he has nevertheless mourned his late wife and infant son for fifteen years, and you sense courage and will gathering under his scraggly powdered wig.

Reading The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock reminds me of a modern-day Henry Fielding, complete with intricate plot, ribaldry, and social commentary. So it is that Hancock observes titled members of Parliament at the bawdy house, who speak in “baby-talk and garbled vowels as the signallers of good breeding”:

Since he has spent two score years outside the society of genteel Whigs, he must be forgiven for hearing their speech as a cacophony of pantomime sneezes; they pronounce the first syllable with great energy, and trail off into a drawl as if between a word’s first letter and its last they have lost all conviction in what they are saying. He is aware — and ashamed of — his dislike for them; he is a Tory through and through, as his father was before him. It is the logical, the patriotic, the honest choice. He has never until this moment felt in any means awkward about it.

But the comic moments aside, there’s much serious matter here. Gowar talks about the way men imprison women for their own use — literally or figuratively — so she brings you inside the brothel, showing the courtesan’s (and madam’s) training and mindset, commercial cruelty, and their hirelings’ poignant sacrifice. In this novel, it seems that every woman in London is for sale, in one way or another, and the mermaid symbolizes this painful fact. The unlikely romance between the straight-laced Jonah and the calculating, brittle Angelica works beautifully, I think; the two characters complement one another in ways they could never have imagined. I also note the choice of names: Jonah, the unwilling prophet who has more to teach than he knows, and Angelica, who discovers, to her surprise, that she possesses goodness and simplicity.

The jacket flap mentions the theme of race, but Gowar spends little time on it, and her attempt to extend the imprisonment metaphor in that direction, though literally apt—enslavement, after all—feels like a letdown because she doesn’t develop it enough. Did a previous, doubtless longer, version of the manuscript dwell on it more deeply? As it is, the theme seems more a point of philosophy than essential to the story, rather like a room to a large house that has been closed off. But that’s a minor complaint about a very fine book — a debut novel, in fact.

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

Ménage à Trois: Love Is Blind

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Review: Love Is Blind, by William Boyd
Knopf, 2018. 369 pp. $27

Brodie Moncur is one of those fictional characters you wish you knew in real life. A Scotsman entering his twenties in the nineteenth century’s final decade, Brodie has spent six years tuning pianos for an Edinburgh concern, Channon and Co. He knows all there is to know about his craft but much less of the world than he would like, so when his boss chooses him to manage a showroom in Paris, Brodie jumps at the chance. With his bag of tools and the knowledge in his head, he can go anywhere. But to make his break, he must stand up to his narcissistic, tyrannical father, who keeps the army of Brodie’s siblings in thrall—Brodie’s the first to leave and by no means the youngest. Nobody, least of all Brodie himself, expects him ever to return; as Boyd often does, he shows that anticipated emotional transition through the natural world:

Brodie had been fishing this small river since he could remember — Callum [his brother] also. They knew every bend and pool, every potential crossing point, every placid, midge-hovered eddy. It had a calming effect on him… memories skittered through his mind, came and went like butterflies or sun dapples beneath breeze-shifted branches; he saw himself as a little boy with his first rod, remembered the charge and thrill of his first catch. Maybe this small river and its wilderness should be ‘home’ to him, he thought, not the manse or the village. He should carefully store the memories of this day and recall it whenever he felt lonely or homesick.

But, as the title suggests, this novel isn’t just a coming-of-age story. A creative thinker, in Paris Brodie devises a scheme whereby a celebrated pianist will use a Channon exclusively and thus publicize the brand. The idea works, but with consequences that will change Brodie’s life; John Kilbarron, “the Irish Liszt,” signs on, sweeping Brodie into his mercurial, if fading, orbit. One moon encircling planet Kilbarron is Russian soprano Lika Blum, his mistress, for whom Brodie falls, hard. Another moon is the pianist’s boorish, mistrustful brother, Malachi, who worships John and acts as his business manager. To no surprise, life gets very complicated. It also travels to different places, and one of the pleasures of this novel is how Boyd describes them all.

Some tools of the trade: rubber mutes and a tuning hammer (courtesy Onascout via Wikimedia Commons)

Brodie’s character appeals, in part, because he takes his many losses without an ounce of self-pity, while enjoying happiness to the fullest. He draws people to him wherever he goes, and his love for and understanding of pianos makes his work a fascinating art. The scenes in which he repairs or tunes these magnificent instruments make wonderful reading, a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a virtuoso’s necessary assistant that no one ever meets.

Brodie trusts people easily, perhaps too much so — strange, given his corrupt, vicious father — and suffers for it. His ingenuity bears fruit, but others seem destined to appropriate it. Accordingly, bad things do happen to him; one theme of Love Is Blind is how quickly happiness and contentment can dissolve. Still, those reversals have to do with others’ weakness, not his, so at times, I wonder whether he’s a little too good to be true. His sole major flaw seems to be vengefulness, but you have to push him very hard before he unleashes it, testament to his patience.

The more obvious weak link is Malachi, whose antagonism has no apparent root except a self -sacrificial brother worship, which Boyd explains but never explores. As an antagonist, Malachi is satisfyingly tireless, but after a while, he becomes more of a device than a person. I wish Lika came into closer focus as well, for she seems a passionate, seductive, willing beauty, perhaps too convenient for Brodie by half. He’s the star of the show, and what you think about that fact or the man himself will decide whether Love Is Blind is for you.

Despite these drawbacks, though, I like this novel, and I think Brodie’s story makes for beautiful, poignant reading.

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

Breaking Free: November Road

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Review: November Road, by Lou Berney
HarperCollins, 2018. 299 pp. $27

Toward the end of this ingenious, heart-stopping thriller, one character says, “With every decision we create a new future,” and destroy all others. It’s the perfect motto for November Road, whose protagonist finds the future narrowing hour by hour, like the short end of a funnel, no matter what decisions he makes.

It’s November 1963. Frank Guidry is a midlevel New Orleans mafioso, fortunate to have the ear of big boss Carlos Marcello and the charm and horse sense to do the right favors for the right people. But when Frank hears that President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas, he wastes no time getting out of New Orleans, hoping to outrun Marcello’s long arm.

How Frank intuits this is a simple, elegant proof, worthy of Euclid — and Berney, like his protagonist, wastes no words explaining. Frank has just ferried a car to Dallas and back; on the return trip, the trunk contained a duffel bag in which he found a high-powered rifle, broken into parts, and shell casings. From the news reports, Frank supposes that nobody but a professional could have hit a moving target so accurately at that range. Conclusion: Marcello masterminded the assassination, and as an accessory, Frank Guidry must be next on the hit list, because of what he knows.

Walt Cisco’s photograph for the Dallas Morning News, November 22, 1963 (public domain in the U.S.; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But Marcello didn’t get where he is by sitting still, so he sends Paul Barone, a cold, tireless killer, to track Frank down. Frank doesn’t know who’s after him, only that whoever it is seems unshakable. And as the net draws closer, the fox devises a way to throw the hounds off the scent: In New Mexico, he eases himself into the path of Charlotte, a woman who’s just left her drunken husband and has two young daughters in tow. Now Frank looks like a family man, much less remarkable to gas station attendants, lunch-counter waitresses, or motel clerks, the people whom anyone following him will interrogate.

But the reader knows what Frank doesn’t — that he’ll fall for Charlotte and the girls, which will add a complication, for he’s never thought of anyone except himself before. Further, to keep up appearances, he’ll have to humor their whims, when speed is of the essence, and though the little girls are extraordinarily well behaved, Charlotte must keep them entertained on the long drive. She thinks she’s going to Los Angeles, where her aunt lives, but Frank is bound for Las Vegas, where he hopes one of Marcello’s rivals will help him. How Frank balances all this makes for a spellbinding story; his secrets, though hidden temporarily, won’t stay that way forever, and Paul Barone is a more than worthy opponent. Sooner or later, all elements must meet.

Berney’s prose, vivid without calling attention to itself, colors in the gangland world and all it touches:

The west bank of the Mississippi, just across the river from New Orleans, was a dirty strip of scrapyards, body shops, and lopsided tenement buildings, the wood rotting off them. The Wank, people called it. Barone understood why. The smell was something else. A couple of refineries fired night and day, a burning funk that stuck to your clothes and skin. Ships dumped their garbage on the New Orleans side, and it washed up here. Dead fish, too, the ones even the gulls wouldn’t touch.

The only place where Berney loses me is Charlotte’s decision to leave her husband for who knows where; the Los Angeles aunt is an afterthought, and a weak one, given that the two haven’t spoken in years. Charlotte has spent her life making circumstances work for other people, and though she’s tired of doing so for her deadbeat husband — and equally tired of being spoken to as a second-class citizen because she’s female — running out is too great a leap for her. No one in her Oklahoma town, where everyone knows everyone else, gets divorced, and nobody just ups and leaves anything or anyone. To hit the road with two vulnerable children and an epileptic dog (a nice touch) makes no sense to me.

I’m also not sure that Frank, despite his apparently exceptional powers of seduction, would find her such an easy conquest. To his credit, Berney gives her intelligence and humor, and those qualities are what draw Frank, not her prettiness. But I could have more easily seen her succumb once, only to pull back, which would have added more sexual tension while complicating the choreography of the later chapters.

Even so, November Road is still a superb thriller. Charlotte has the journey of her life; many readers will enjoy going along for the ride.

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

Are We Downhearted?: Dear Mrs. Bird

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Review: Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce
Scribner, 2018. 281 pp. $26

Emmeline Lake has always wanted to be a journalist, and since it’s 1940, and London is being bombed almost nightly, how better to do her bit than as an intrepid reporter? She already volunteers for the Auxiliary Fire Service, answering telephone calls during Luftwaffe raids. But though she enjoys the work and the camaraderie, Emmy believes she has more to her and more to give. So when she sees an ad from what she thinks is the London Evening Chronicle for an assistant, she applies right away. Her friend Marigold, known as Bunty — don’t ask why; this is England — encourages her to celebrate the start of a sparkling career in reportage. Emmy, the optimistic, hopeful sort, eats it up, and pretty soon, everybody who knows her is congratulating her on her big break into journalism.

Aldwych Underground station used as an air-raid shelter, 1940 (courtesy Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons)

It never occurs to Emmy that, as a junior assistant, she’s more likely to find her typing skills an asset than creative get-up-and-go. Nor does the way she practically walks into the job for the asking set off any alarm bells. Rather, she makes the unhappy discovery that she’s on a different floor from the Evening Chronicle, and it might as well be the moon. Emmy has gotten herself a job as typist to the redoubtable Mrs. Henrietta Bird, the Dear Abby of Woman’s Friend magazine, though a more apt description might be Dear Queen of Hearts. Mrs. Bird doesn’t exactly say, “Off with her head!” But she does shout, and she refuses to answer, or even read, any letter that has the least bit of Unpleasantness in it. The few replies she writes suggest that her empathy, if she ever had any, was jellied in aspic sometime around 1911. There may be a war on, and women are asked to bear many burdens of which men know nothing, all while remaining completely unflappable, cheerful, and physically attractive. But Mrs. Bird knows nothing of this and would rather not hear about it.

Emmy cares, however, and knows how to respond, or thinks she does. And since her boss is often out, that leaves the chance open for mischief, or, as Emmy sees it, offering help to those in need. I’ll leave you to guess what happens.

Pearce captures a certain spirit of the time, an honest, cheery, keep-your-chin-up mood for which beleaguered Londoners enduring the Blitz became famous. Lissa Evans, for one, has written about the other side of that spectrum, those who pretended selflessness or patriotism but were really on the take. Yet there’s no doubt that young women like Emmy existed, and if part of Dear Mrs. Bird seems fanciful, it’s also irresistibly charming:

Today, London was operating under a low and dreary grey sky, the sort that looked like a giant boy had flung off his school jumper and accidentally covered up the West End. Braving the cold, I was wearing a smart blue single-breasted serge suit, my very best shoes, and a little black tilt hat that I had borrowed from Bunty. I hoped I might look both businesslike and alert. The sort of person who could sniff out a scoop and get the measure of it in a moment. The sort of person who is not feeling as if her heart might positively explode.

Humor’s the key to this novel, and I love Pearce’s touch. For instance, of the drinks cabinet in Emmy and Bunty’s flat, the women have decided that if the Germans invaded and broke in, “we would push it down the stairs at them. The full extent of the British Empire was featured in a rather confident orange and we thought that would make them quite wonderfully cross.”

But these people also know pain and hardship as their city’s being blown to bits. Dear Mrs. Bird contains touching moments when war intrudes, and it’s impossible — undesirable — to keep a stiff upper lip. In such a strained atmosphere, estrangements are sometimes inevitable, and Pearce never lets her heroine sail through life. With the bombs falling, that would be ridiculous. The ending does seem a bit contrived, but it’s also funny, and to object would be churlish. Dear Mrs. Bird is a delightful book.

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

Keys and Corpses: The Locksmith’s Daughter

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Review: The Locksmith’s Daughter, by Karen Brooks
Morrow, 2018. 551 pp. $17

Following a shame and scandal that took her away from her parents in London, Mallory Bright returns, hoping to hide herself as an assistant to her father, a locksmith. But it’s 1580, and according to the mores of Elizabethan England, locksmithing is no trade for a woman, nor should Mallory have received a scholar’s education, including ancient and modern languages. However, her father’s old friend, Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s secretary, witnesses Mallory’s talent for picking locks, and he realizes what a weapon she’d be in his campaign against Catholic subversives. The previous years have seen a not-entirely-covert war against those whom, rightly or wrongly, Sir Francis and the crown see as plotters to subvert Protestantism in England and topple Elizabeth from her throne.

Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, ca. 1585, attributed to John de Critz (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons)

Walsingham has long fascinated novelists and historians, and no wonder; he may have been the first national spymaster in history. Here, I find Mallory’s connection to him contrived, and her background even less credible, while her scandalous past is nothing less than operatic. But if you can get past that, The Locksmith’s Daughter offers a few pleasures, chief of which is sixteenth-century London, which Brooks has in the palm of her hand. Whether it’s common attitudes, daily routine, the casual way the law treats human life, scenery, or details of dress, she puts you right there:

Up ahead, a pack of dogs barked as a butcher unhooked the gutted pig strung up outside his premises, a swarm of flies lifting from the gray flash as he hoisted it over his shoulder and leveled kicks and curses at the hounds. Nearby, a flower seller chatted to an old sailor with a wooden stump where his left leg should be. We entered an area I once walked with confidence and I stayed close to Angela, who’d begun to hum the ditty drifting from a nearby tavern.

“No — and furthermore” seeps through these pages, which, though many, fly by. Conflict abounds, whether moral, political, or amorous, and Mallory’s closest friend, Caleb, is an actor-playwright, always good for color and theme (artifice, romance, deception). The adventures that Mallory undertakes for Sir Francis are truly hair-raising, and none go as planned. Many people die as a result of his efforts, some quite horribly. The serpentine plot forces Mallory to rethink everything she’s ever believed, and she’s never far from confrontation and recrimination, even if she sometimes narrowly escapes them — for now. There’s even a rakish, passionate peer, Lord Nathaniel Warham, Caleb’s patron, who takes a keen interest in Mallory and seems to see through her.

But despite these promising elements, to me, The Locksmith’s Daughter fails to deliver. Brooks’s style involves too much tell, not enough show. After doing such a marvelous job setting up crackling conflicts, she douses them with generic responses, whether sentences like, “Wonder and terror coursed down my spine,” or scads of rhetorical questions (“Did I make a mistake? What could I have done?”) The author wants us to believe that Mallory, though an exceptional woman for her time, is still at least partly in thrall to common views of gender roles. Fair enough, but rhetorical questions don’t prove that; Mallory needs to show it, not just entertain it, and whenever she criticizes herself for stepping beyond her role or her station, I don’t believe her. This split between the world she dreams of and the one she lives in is a difficult point of character to convey, but it’s crucial. And though I know what Brooks is trying to say, Mallory’s words and thoughts in those moments seem handed to her rather than coming from within. It’s as though she were a member of Caleb’s acting troupe, speaking her lines.

The romance, too, feels a little forced. The reader knows right away that Lord Nathaniel has fallen for Mallory, and when this notion finally occurs to her, it’s obvious that the lady doth protest too much. She would be easier to believe if they quarreled more often about anything substantive, rather than who insulted whom, and there are plenty of contentious issues floating around, not least religious persecution. Naturally, he rescues her at key moments, which disappoints this feminist reader, but it’s also the way he (and others) come to her aid, revealing that they knew a particular secret all along and have acted accordingly. It’s a shame that such an able storyteller should resort to melodrama, but perhaps she knows her audience and figures that skeptics like me aren’t part of it.

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

Just Three Blocks Apart: Not Our Kind

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Review: Not Our Kind, by Kitty Zeldis
Harper, 2018. 337 pp. $27

One morning in 1947, Eleanor Moskowitz is on her way to a job interview when two taxicabs collide on a Manhattan street. Eleanor, riding in one, suffers a mild injury, though she’s more upset at missing her interview. But the passenger in the other taxi, Patricia Bellamy, insists on bringing Eleanor to her Park Avenue home and tending to her.

As it happens, Patricia’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Margaux, needs a tutor, and Eleanor has teaching experience and a Vassar degree. More importantly, Margaux takes to her instantly, as she has to no other person besides her parents and her mother’s brother, her Uncle Tom. As an angry, whiny child suffering a disability — she had polio and walks with a cane — she normally dislikes everyone on sight, so the connection to Eleanor means something to Patricia.

Trouble is, Eleanor’s Jewish, and Patricia’s an anti-Semite — the genteel sort, to be sure, but her husband, Wynn, is louder and more pointed about it. In fact, he’s louder and more pointed about everything, a drunken boor with roving eyes and hands. But the Bellamys hire Eleanor anyway, because Margaux likes her, and they’re desperate for someone to get through to their daughter.

Screen shot from the trailer for Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, which featured John Garfield, one of the era’s great actors, in a supporting part. For this and other “suspect” roles, the House Un-American Activities Committee destroyed him. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But Eleanor has her doubts too. As her mother says, these prospective employers are “not our kind,” and the newly hired tutor feels intimidated by their wealth, apparent ease, and, well, perfection, observable even in the building where they live, only three blocks from her own:

Mrs. Bellamy lived in a twelve-story apartment building on the southwest corner of Eighty-Third and Park. Eleanor was more attentive today to the six limestone medallions, each depicting a wreath of fruit and flowers, the four massive Greek columns, two on either side of the door, as well as the black lanterns that were attached to the façade. With its limestone and brick exterior, the building projected a permanence, and even moral rectitude, that made the buildings in her own neighborhood seem almost provisional in contrast.

Zeldis has New York down — the clothing styles, social mores, scenery, and, most germane, workplace anti-Semitism. The author has a gift for the unexpected, the essence of tension, so that even when the plot seems predictable, events don’t turn out quite the way you think. I also like Zeldis’s knack for getting tremendous mileage out of a simple situation that’s actually very complicated, especially once Patricia’s charming, individualist brother happens on the scene and hits it off with Eleanor right away. The Bellamys’ prejudice lurks behind every interaction, as if the elephant in the room were trumpeting loudly, except they try not to hear it. It’s the problem that simply won’t go away, and Zeldis resists any temptation at easy fixes. For the most part, until the last quarter of the novel, the plot unfolds naturally, with no apparent guiding hand.

Where Not Our Kind falls short, I think, lies in the characters, especially the men. Wynn is a cartoon; Zeldis belatedly announces his merits, trying to mitigate his villainy, but you don’t see them. Likewise, though Tom’s charming, he’s elusive, and though I can see Eleanor admire his ease and wish she had it, and that she soaks up his kindness and sensitivity, that’s different from love. I like Patricia and her daughter, who seem real, and Eleanor’s mother, Irina, who can observe that she’s unhappy about decisions Eleanor has made, but that unhappiness isn’t fatal.

The heroine’s another story. I sympathize with Eleanor, but once I finished the book, I tried to remember her flaws and couldn’t. She’s unsure of herself and a little envious, but those hardly count, and she seems remarkably self-possessed, seldom at a loss for the words she needs to stick up for herself. She grows toward feminism without using the term, a worthy theme and apt for the time, but I find Patricia more rounded.

Further, Eleanor’s Jewishness is entirely cultural, and though many novelists draw such characters, I often suspect that they do so merely for the inconvenience that observance causes in the workaday world, or because they’re not confident they can do otherwise. Zeldis plainly can; late in the book, Eleanor recoils inwardly at pork on a plate. She could have, should have done that throughout the narrative–not necessarily as strongly, just to acknowledge her difference, her otherness, which she notes in many other ways.

Finally, Not Our Kind, despite its marvelous descriptions of clothing or architecture, doesn’t feel like 1947. There’s no sense of relief after a war, or even that there was a war, though we’re told that Wynn didn’t fight, and that Patricia lost a brother. There’s nothing about popular culture, politics (as in anti-Communist hysteria, whose roots lay in anti-Semitism), or other goings-on — surprising, given that Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about covert anti-Semitism, came out that year.

I enjoyed reading Not Our Kind, but I don’t think it will stay with me.

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

Her Story: The Silence of the Girls

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Review: The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
Doubleday, 2018. 291 pp. $28

Readers familiar with the Trojan War myths will recognize the name Briseis as belonging to the woman captured by Achilles and taken by Agamemnon, an insult that results in a fateful quarrel. Achilles sulks, and in his absence from the battlefield, the Greeks suffer reversals, the most serious of which is Patroclus’s death. In the traditional telling, the woman herself is a thing, a bauble to be claimed, hardly worth mentioning except the trouble she causes.

But in this beautifully imagined, finely wrought novel, Briseis has her say. And when she does, she speaks for all women, those of Troy and elsewhere, of queens like herself and commoners. As she remarks with incisive bitterness, when bards craft the songs of great deeds and heroes, they don’t mention the truth of conquest, “the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.” Needless to say, neither Briseis nor her sisters in captivity cause any trouble, but even the presumption that they do suggests the tremendous power that men have — to tell the story of their battles, as though those were the only ones fought, or theirs the only story.

Achilles surrenders Briseis to Agamemnon, first-century fresco from Pompeii (courtesy Naples National Archeological Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)

Utterly engrossing from its first words, The Silence of the Girls begins with Achilles laying siege to Briseis’s home city, Lyrnessus. She hears his voice, his war cry, before she even sees him, and what will happen is never in doubt. After the battle comes the looting:

Gangs of men were dragging heavy loads out of the buildings – carved furniture, bales of rich cloth, tapestries, armour, tripods, cooking cauldrons, barrels of wine and grain. Now and then, the men would sit down and rest, some on the ground, some on the chairs and beds they’d been carrying. They were all swigging wine straight from the jug, wiping their mouths on the backs of their bloodstained hands, getting steadily and determinedly drunk. And more and more often, as the sky started to fade, they gazed up at the slit windows of the citadel where they knew the women would be hiding.. . . For hours, I watched them strip houses and temples of wealth that generations of my people had worked hard to create, and they were so good at it, so practised. . . . And then they turned their attention to us.

As this description suggests, Barker writes as if she’s actually seen everything that goes on, known all these mythical characters from personal experience. Achilles, a killing machine of great physical beauty but no heart save for love of Patroclus, his childhood friend, makes a disturbingly believable portrait. He’s difficult to sympathize with, considering his ego, merciless outlook, and selfishness, yet you also understand how he’s never grown up — and even realizes it, a little. Barker astutely wonders what it must have been like for Achilles to have a goddess for a mother, and what that must have done to his psyche. Patroclus is much kinder; he almost sees Briseis as a person — almost. Agamemnon’s a loser, a bully said not to risk his skin in battle, and as such, fears that others will see his weakness.

The protagonist, meanwhile, refuses to accept her fate, as Patroclus counsels her to do in her first hours as a slave. Her struggles to cope with how it feels to be unseen, unheard, raped nightly by the man who killed her brothers, knowing that however bad her life is, it could be worse — Achilles could tire of her and hand her to his men — speak loudly. It’s her story, all right, and she makes the most of it. Barker does follow the myth, but there are so many unexpected moments within that framework that nothing feels predictable.

In that, I’m reminded of my favorite Trojan War novels, The War at Troy, by Lindsay Clarke, and The Songs of the Kings, by Barry Unsworth. But I think Barker goes one better; it’s my favorite of hers since Regeneration. Neither Clarke nor Unsworth would have allowed the few anachronisms in which Barker indulges — a fist pump, Briseis’s knowledge that rats and plague go together, and, most important (and pervasive), modern British slang. Some readers will be put off by that, and at first, it pushes you out of the narrative — a definite no-no — but these soldiers talk like soldiers, and they seem entirely credible.

The Silence of the Girls may not be perfect, but it’s pretty damn close.

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

A Moral Tale Without a Compass: Once a Midwife

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Review: Once a Midwife, by Patricia Harman
Morrow, 2018. 487 pp. $17

Patience Hester, midwife of Liberty, West Virginia, senses the state of the world in November 1941 with terrible foreboding. Her husband, Daniel, a veterinarian and veteran of the First World War, has said that if war comes again to the United States, he will refuse to go. As healers, the Hesters’ moral predicament offers a compelling premise; add Patience’s past as a political activist for liberal causes and her distaste for Nazi Germany, and Harman has drawn her battle lines.

I wish I could tell you that Once a Midwife takes off from this promising platform, delivering a meaningful narrative that explores conscience and convenience. Unfortunately, directly or by implication, the novel lets just about everyone off the hook, which results in a moral tale lacking the requisite compass. Evil boils away until the dregs belong only to the local KKK or the SS assassins of Eastern European killing fields. Racism? Not here; the African-American characters may receive a cold look or two, but most everyone else is the soul of tolerance. Somehow, the Holocaust has become public knowledge in rural West Virginia a year before anywhere else, and, even more miraculously, nobody in Liberty voices prejudice against Jews, even at a meeting of America First, an organization notorious for anti-Semitism. Consequently, the bad guys are the few, irredeemable Them, whereas the good guys are Us. And since everyone’s the same underneath, why can’t we all live in peace and harmony?

Asking that all-important question in December 1941 might be a bit late, but, in any case, the people in this novel aren’t flexible enough to grapple with it. Patience tells the reader and other characters what she feels, referring to facts from her past or current events, announcements that turn a potential person into a headline. Daniel’s even less convincing, for he sounds alternately like a whiny adolescent and a holier-than-thou prophet. Rather than show why he’s a pacifist or have him struggle with his beliefs, Harman has him recite potted history that could have come from a seventh-grade textbook; when pressed, he tells generic stories about his war service. So he’s a talking head who’s got glib, half-baked answers for everything, not a deep-thinking man of conscience. But he’s not alone, for characters in Once a Midwife seldom talk to each other. They talk at each other, usually to dump information—and boy, are they misinformed.

I firmly believe that historical novelists should have poetic license, and that the writing and presentation matter ten times more than research. Still, I need to believe that the author has some sense of what facts she’s changing and why, whereas here, I question Harman’s grasp of the era, its events, and especially its timeline. The war seems to serve merely as a cauldron to dish up convenient plot points. Meanwhile, the premise contains enough untapped conflict to fill a novel by itself.

For instance, why doesn’t Patience — or anyone — ask Daniel whether, as a veterinarian serving a farm population, he’d try to get a deferment for an exempt profession, especially given his age? He might not listen, because he refuses even to register for the draft, but so much the better—another point of conflict with his beleaguered, overwhelmed wife, more room for him to show (not explain) his principles. Also, Daniel’s situation might have changed when, a year after Pearl Harbor, Selective Service lowered the age of draft liability to thirty-eight, a fact that the narrative doesn’t mention but a circumstance that offers another possible iteration of the same conflict.

But these moral complexities, which should be the novel’s strength, wind up resolving themselves. At several points, Patience wonders whether her husband’s a weakling or has taken dubious positions, for which she hates him for short bursts, invariably snapping out of it. It’s as though the narrative prevents the characters from getting too upset with one another—a common flaw in feel-good novels, but unfortunately, Harman pushes this into the realm of cluelessness. She evokes the hurtful, ignorant trope that divides Germany into a basically decent but cowed majority and a tiny sliver guilty of all evil, a morally simplistic position that denies history and insults the victims.

Worse, Harman underlines the (studiously low-level) bigotry, rampant jingoism, small-mindedness, and government propaganda visible in Liberty; weighs that against Axis lies and brutalities; and implies that it’s a wash. I must confess I nearly lost it when a group of German POWs recently arrived to West Virginia sing a Christmas carol and in this way prove their basic humanity to Patience’s satisfaction. With little hesitation–and even less thought to what they might have done–she gives a pass to men who’ve bloodied and terrorized half of Europe. Where’s the moral sense in that?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Telling Too Much: The Hamilton Affair

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Review: The Hamilton Affair, by Elizabeth Cobbs
Arcade, 2016. 403 pp. $26

He’s illegitimate, an orphan born to poverty in St. Croix; she’s the daughter of one of upstate New York’s first families. He, though a devoted family man who yearns for the warm, close-knit hearth he never had, loves nothing more than a fight, whether on a battlefield or in a political assembly. She, though she picks up the pieces — her lot as a woman — resents her husband’s role as a lightning rod and correctly predicts that they’ll suffer for it.

This is the romance between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, and a tragic, touching tale it is. Cobbs begins the narrative with each protagonist as a child. Alexander struggles against the shame of his birth, and you don’t need to be told (though Cobbs does) that he’ll grow up touchy about his honor, in an era when the concept already has a rigid, constraining definition.

James Sharples’s pastel portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, 1795 (courtesy Smithsonian Institution, via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Eliza feels like the odd one out too, awkward, unschooled, incapable of knowing what to say or how to act. An early passage recounts her visit with her father to a conclave of the Six Nations:

The shadowy interior smelled of wood smoke and roasting meat. Shelves burdened with gourds and lidded baskets lined the walls, and ears of drying maize tied by their silks hung from the rafters. Groups of men lounged on rugs, some made from bearskin, others from cloth. The translator showed them to a bench facing a low table made from a single plank. Thank goodness, Eliza thought, since she hadn’t the faintest idea how to sit on a bearskin with the dignity she knew her father expected.

The description reveals a major strength of The Hamilton Affair. Cobbs, a noted historian, renders the scenery, sensations of everyday life, mores, and issues in vivid, economical prose. You can see, for example, how the North-South divide over slavery, banking, manufacturing, trade, and foreign policy crops up the minute the Revolution ends, setting up the Civil War. Cobbs does a great service paying due homage to Hamilton, whom I had always thought a man of ability but an elitist. I’ve now learned that this is the viewpoint his detractors left to history, because they had the last word.

But it’s how he got those enemies that makes Cobbs’s narrative of interest. Her Hamilton doesn’t suffer a fool gladly, but there’s much more to it. How ironic that his opponents cast him as beholden to patrician interests when they’re the patricians — the Virginia planters like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, or the New York gentry like Burr or Clinton. As a largely self-taught polymath, a nobody who rises to be Washington’s right hand—his accomplishments are truly mind-boggling–Hamilton poses a threat to men who feel they have the right to rule. Throw in his intense dislike of slavery, and he’s doomed.

What a fascinating story, but as a novel, The Hamilton Affair seldom escapes a mechanical, ordained feel. Eliza, a woman much put-upon, would have been much more sympathetic (rather than an object of pity) had she more depth, as in a serious flaw or three. She represents important feminist ideals before they had that name, but she’d symbolize them all the better as a rounded character.

The narrative structure is the crucial weakness, though. Cobbs chooses key dramatic events for many chapters, which is fine, but the intent to cover her protagonists’ entire lives sets up gaps of time and circumstance, which in turn involves playing catch-up so that the reader doesn’t get lost. As a consequence, the author throws dozens of facts into dialogue and internal narrative, which land with a dull thud; and many chapters start at pivotal moments, only to backtrack, covering so much material that the forward narrative stalls. It’s just too much to fit, especially when the two principals don’t meet until about page 120.

If fact, description, and the march of history take precedence here, that leaves less space for emotions, and Cobbs surrenders to the temptation of telling rather than showing them, even at make-or-break moments. During the courtship, for instance, when Hamilton sees that he can’t put off telling Eliza about his birth and early life, you’d think he’d feel intensely pent-up. Here’s a man passionately in love with a beautiful, adventuresome, understanding young woman, yet he fears she’ll reject him once she knows the truth of his origins. This emotional moment, surely among the most significant of Hamilton’s life, receives a brief, rote paragraph.

I’ll say this for The Hamilton Affair: The book prompts me to put Ron Chernow’s highly regarded biography of the great man on my to-be-read pile. But as fiction, Cobbs’s novel tries to tell too much, and winds up showing too little.

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

Albania Bleeds: Chronicle in Stone

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Review: Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare
Translated from the Albanian by Arshi Pipa
Edited by David Bellos
Arcade, 2011. 301 pp. $18

A nameless, near-sighted young boy living in a small Albanian city near the Greek border grows up in the late 1930s. To call him an unreliable narrator would be incorrect, for he sees everything unfold around him with great precision — his relatively cushioned existence during the Italian annexation of spring 1939, the world war that soon follows, and numerous occupations, as the city changes hands.

Rather, his myopia is emotional, for he understands little or nothing of what goes on around him, which his overactive imagination turns inside out. And that could not be otherwise, when, for some reason never explained, he receives no schooling, and the only perspective he hears comes mostly from elderly relatives and neighborhood widows, whose constant preoccupation is sorcery. Every evil occurrence, or even those actually benign, are explained by malevolent magic, whether it’s a boy who starts wearing eyeglasses — unthinkable! — or a stolen kiss on the street. A young woman is said to sprout a beard; witchcraft must surely be responsible, a sign that the world will end soon (a familiar refrain). Burn your nail clippings and the hair in your hairbrushes, or the witches will target you.

Italian invasion of Albania, April 1939 (courtesy Axis History Forum via Wikimedia Commons)

So Kadare’s naïve narrator may be forgiven for wanting to visit the slaughterhouse, because it promises entertainment, or for admiring the aerodrome the Italians build. He ascribes different characters to the warplanes, as if they were human, and seems not to reckon on what it means that they bomb other places, though he soon finds out what that feels like.

I’ve never much cared for magical realism, and Chronicle in Stone skates close to my sensibilities. But as a metaphorical tale about hatred and divisiveness, the novel packs a wallop — even without a plot. Several characters try to break out of their roles and suffer for it, and the boy comes to learn something of what pleasure and evil mean. But I think the real power — and story, such as it is — comes from Kadare’s painstaking account of persistent animosities that seemingly arise out of nothing for what looks different or potentially threatening, such as the alleged beard that will end the world. It’s a short walk from these prejudices to the violence that grips the city (read: Albania), or, for that matter, juxtaposing a jaunt to the slaughterhouse and a world war.

As with other highly metaphorical novels, the prose has a lot of work to do, and Kadare’s is flawless. This early passage conveys the boy’s imagination and fascination with violent destiny:

I pictured the countless drops rolling down the sloping roof, hurtling to earth to turn to mist that would rise again in the high, white sky. Little did they know that a clever trap, a tin gutter, awaited them on the eaves. Just as they were about to make the leap from roof to ground, they suddenly found themselves caught in the narrow pipe with thousands of companions, asking “Where are we going, where are they taking us?” Then, before they could recover from that mad race, they plummeted into a deep prison, the great cistern of our house.
Here ended the raindrops’ life of joy and freedom.

Kadare captures the stubbornness of people who, for months on end, speak only of a select few topics — you know what they are — take absurd pride in an antiaircraft gun that never hits anything, or expect corruption everywhere. Does empathy even exist? Every once in a while, someone talks sense, but you can be certain no one will listen, to the point that the reader has to laugh. So in a way, the main thrust of Chronicle in Stone is comic, darkly so, which is why having a half-blind, ignorant narrator makes perfect sense.

I can’t say this book is for everyone; if you open it and look for a plot, a climax, or a crescendo, you’ll be disappointed. And yet, this slight novel is worth your time, and the pages will fly by.

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