Convent Under Siege: The Maiden of All Our Desires

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Review: The Maiden of All Our Desires, by Peter Manseau
Arcade, 2022. 327 pp. $27

Somewhere in midfourteenth-century England, the plague ravages the populace, as it does elsewhere in Europe. A remote convent, deliberately secluded to discourage visitors, secular or ecclesiastic, is under siege—from the threat of infection, yes, but two other forces as well. One is a snowstorm the like of which nobody can recall seeing, and which feels and looks apocalyptic. The third threat, perhaps the most serious, arrives from above in a different sense: The bishop, having heard rumors of heresy at the convent, is coming to investigate.

Nobody dares talk about the danger, and the abbess, Mother John (many of the nuns have taken masculine names, according to which religious figures inspire them), seems to deny any peril at all. But around her lurks the fear that wherever a bishop looks for heresy, he’ll find it. Moreover, he may not have far to look, for the convent, especially Mother John and those she influences most strongly, puts much faith in the sayings of the previous abbess, Ursula. For instance: “Birds see all but say nothing we can understand, which make them a perfect symbol of the divine.”

You see the problem here: Since when is a woman’s philosophy meaningful, particularly if it replaces standard (read: created by men) dogma? Mother John would object to the accusation of replacement, arguing that her beliefs coexist with those of the church. However, her outlook, though scrupulously devout, seems based on common sense — rather refreshing, if you ask me, and perhaps most modern readers would agree.

But nobody’s asking us, or anyone else, for the spirit of inquiry is precisely the problem. A good fourteenth-century Christian is supposed to obey, not think, let alone question. And the manuscripts of Ursula’s that Mother John refuses to get rid of could send her and many others to the stake.

Consequently, The Maiden of All Our Desires deals with where faith comes from, what it means, and how the earthly world gets in the way. The Department of Earthly Delights has its ambassador in Father Francis, the priest who hears the women’s confessions and performs other necessary sacraments, but who might have preferred to follow wood carving as a career, and who has known forbidden pleasures. That means he has secrets to keep and sins for which to atone.

A working water mill in Lyme Regis, UK. An ingenious mill wheel figures in the novel (courtesy Zephyris, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The novel purports to unfold over the course of one day, divided into the various prayer services–matins, lauds, prime, and so forth. Umberto Eco followed a similar framework in The Name of the Rose, though at greater length and with greater coherence. In Manseau’s novel, it’s not always immediately clear when events happen, the day of the snowstorm or in the past, but bet on the latter, and you’ll be right most often.

Back story rules, which can be difficult to sort out, but stay with it. There’s much here to enjoy. A different literary conceit, from the publisher (not the author), invokes Matrix and Hamnet, among other comparisons, which proves, once again, that the publicist’s favorite game provides the surest way to minimize in glibness each book’s essence or meaning. What else would you expect from a soundbite?

That said, having loved both those other books, I see a resemblance, though not because Matrix involves an abbess. It’s the tactile prose.

She reached out timidly to touch the crucifix, to be certain of what she saw. With two cracked, scratching fingers, her hands shaking like a bride’s, she moved down the leg from knee to ankle. The wood was cold and smooth, carved perfectly. She traced her fingers along the rounded line that joined the legs, and felt the angles that made its curve: numberless angles, like a tiny and perfect mountain range; peaks formed meticulously by a skilled hand and the finest of edges, undetectable by sight, but so apparent to the touch. She felt too the grain of the wood and the remnants of rings, the signature of the tree this once had been.

A typical passage, this. Throughout the novel, Manseau’s descriptions reveal inner life, setting, and conflict. It’s reason enough to read the book, but consider also the story, which, despite the occasionally confusing time frames, keeps you riveted and offers a satisfying ending. As for characters, Mother John and Ursula come through, but I would have liked more differentiation among the nuns, other than their petty rivalries.

Further, it’s curious how Father Francis commands an outsize presence in this community of women, though perhaps that results from the necessities of plot and the importance to it of earthly desire. Nevertheless, Manseau, curator of religion at the Smithsonian Institution, knows his ground thoroughly and has written a thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining novel.

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

“Destroy This Mad Brute”

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Building on my post two weeks ago about the Seattle parade and propaganda efforts, here’s more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

Many recruiting posters in Britain and the United States appealed to men by addressing the masculine imperative to protect women. But the one shown here pulls out all the stops.

H. R. Hopps, 1917 (courtesy Library of Congress)

“Destroy This Mad Brute” posits a savage gorilla wearing a spiked helmet that says, “Militarism,” wielding a club labeled “Kultur” (frequently translated as “civilization”), and abducting a fair-haired woman. She, for once, isn’t wearing white, and you can’t see her face, a concealment perhaps intended to spare her; or conversely underline her humiliation; or leave the viewer free to imagine her as a loved one. Further, the invader advances menacingly, having already torched American shores to cinders. The single word “Enlist” sends the message.

For starters, I find it sad and utterly misguided how humans can cast other primates as savage, when we’re the ones to machine-gun and bomb each other; but gorillas, essentially peaceable, shy creatures, have long suffered a bad rap (witness King Kong). The German Army had abandoned the admittedly ludicrous (and impractical) spiked helmet by 1916, but for some reason, it became an emblem of brutality, and American propagandists loved it.

As for “militarism,” responsible for the invasion and destruction of neutral Belgium, that’s the lone scrap of truth. But, as I noted in a previous post, legal and moral arguments lack visceral appeal. Ridiculous as it sounds today, the suggestion that the German Army raped its way across Europe and would somehow cross the Atlantic to repeat the crime found its adherents.

The story of this poster didn’t end there. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Hitler’s chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels, rolled out this same illustration, with different text, to inoculate the German public against foreign charges of atrocities.

More to come.

Starting Place: The School of Mirrors

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Review: The School of Mirrors, by Eva Stachniak
Morrow, 2022. 399 pp. $17

The year, 1755. Thirteen-year-old Véronique Roux lives in a squalid Paris apartment with her mother, who scratches out a living mending old clothes, and three younger brothers. One day, Maman tells Véronique she’s to go into service for a wealthy nobleman, and just like that, the girl’s shipped off to a splendid home a brief carriage ride from Versailles, where Louis XV holds court. Naturally, her mother receives certain financial considerations.

Told that her patron is a Polish nobleman attached to the court, Véronique is groomed for her upcoming service to him. She’s given plenty to eat; her skin and hair cleansed of lice and treated for various ailments common to poor children; she’s taught penmanship, posture, and comportment; to improve her singing and recitation; and, most important, instruction, religious and secular, stressing modesty, restraint, and obedience. In other words, qualities foreign to the French monarchy.

The emotions had to be controlled at all times. Anything vulgar had to be strictly avoided. Eating fast and too much, running, jumping, stomping our feet, shouting, cursing, showing either sadness or joy. ‘News of a death or a proposal of marriage… must be met with equal composure. Always smile, whether you are happy or not. Make your eyes sparkle, no matter what you are thinking of.’

Meanwhile, the narrative also recounts life within the palace at Versailles. In particular, we learn how the king, jaded and bored with his caged existence, longs for pleasures to lift his heart (and another part of his anatomy, which seems to rule his moods). He can’t stand dealing with matters of state, which include a war that’s going badly, so he spends as little time on these as possible. How droll.

Rather, everyone close to him, most especially his former mistress and closest advisor, Madame de Pompadour, do their best to divert him with gossip, prop up his flagging ego, and provide tender flesh to interest that other, significant part of him. Practically from the get-go, the reader understands what Véronique doesn’t: what her “service” will entail, and who her patron really is. She’s a bit dense for a Parisian girl, especially a beauty who’s endured advances from strange men and whose mother has all the tenderness of a brick, therefore the embodiment of hard lessons.

Charles André Van Loo’s portrait of Mme de Pompadour, née Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, ca. 1755 (courtesy Petit Trianon, Palace of Versailles, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Suffice to say that the “Polish nobleman” takes a shine to Véronique, and her subsequent pregnancy gets her expelled from paradise. Her child, Marie-Louise, is taken from her, while Véronique’s packed off to marry some grain merchant.

That I haven’t yet recounted the main premise of the novel tells you the major weakness of The School of Mirrors: The story really picks up steam seventeen years and 175 pages after it begins. Marie-Louise’s life in Paris, apprenticeship to a midwife, and ringside seat at the revolution and its excesses form the core of the book, and I like this part. So do we really need to know, in meticulous detail, how despicable the Bourbon monarchy was under the previous, fifteenth Louis?

Stachniak seems to want to reveal the precise depth of sexual abuse, misogyny, and moral corruption, and what a gruesome, ugly tale it is. I don’t think that justifies its presence, and I suspect that if you began reading at page 175, you’d understand almost everything you need to know to appreciate the novel. Well-chosen back story could have filled in the rest.

The first half of the book does offer a few noteworthy characters. I like the portrayals of the king, his chief procurer, and Madame de Pompadour. The descriptions give a vivid picture of court life — the author knows her ground — though I’d have liked them better had they struck an emotional chord. Some feel merely decorative, static.

But there’s no comparing with the second half of the book, where conflict spins more rapidly, and the revolutionaries turn out to be just as corrupt as the monarchy they toppled, if in their own way. Marie-Louise has more to her than her mother, and the narrative feels more intimate, therefore more compelling.

I wonder whether Stachniak has two novels here; she’s got two stories, certainly. Her desire to connect the two and derive surprise lacks the impact she may have hoped for, but that strategy’s apparently a trend, these days: try to shock the reader, at any cost to narrative flow or plausibility. At least the author doesn’t withhold information the way some do — she’s too generous for that — but I’ve never understood the fascination with connecting multiple disparate narratives. Seldom does it work out as intended in artistic terms, so it must sell books.

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

The Great American (Historical) Novel: The Scarlet Letter

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Review: The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Penguin, 2003. 228 pp. $8

Maybe you know the story, even if you’ve never read the novel. Hester Prynne, a woman of seventeenth-century Boston, must be punished for having borne a child out of wedlock. In this most Puritan community, she’s lucky to escape with her life; instead, she spends several months in prison, after which she must forever wear a scarlet letter A, announcing that she’s an adulteress.

The simplest of premises, you’d think, yet there’s nothing simple about this quintessential American moral tale, written in 1850. Hawthorne, descended from a judge at the Salem witch trials, an ancestry that shamed him and influenced his work and life, cuts surgically into the withered, envious soul of Puritanism and holds the stinking mess up to the light. (For those interested in a fictional account of the author’s life and struggle with his unwanted legacy, see Erika Robuck’s House of Hawthorne.)

It’s not just that the reader is meant to understand and sympathize with Hester, who’s actually a bit of a stubborn drip, at times. It’s that Hawthorne wants you to see the society that condemns her, a group of caviling hypocrites who may or may not lust for her but certainly do for the wealth and power they possess. Nobody escapes, Hawthorne says; there’s evil in all of us, and desires aplenty.

Mary Hallock Foote’s illustration of Hester and Pearl, from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

H.L. Mencken, writing more than a half-century after Hawthorne, quipped that Puritanism was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” The Scarlet Letter bears witness, as even children’s play involves games of persecuting Quakers or attending church. Some leading elders assume that Hester’s daughter, Pearl, unable to answer a single question from the catechism at age three, may therefore be Satan’s handmaid. She is ungovernable, it’s true, and has a mean streak that pains her long-suffering mother. But she’s also a happy child, and nobody knows what to make of this.

Crucial too is how Hester wears her A, skillfully embroidered, perhaps pushing the bounds of everyday Puritan taste (though not of formal wear, curiously enough, especially among the rich and powerful). Consequently, the adulteress hides nothing, though she largely keeps to herself, because her every public appearance challenges her judges as to their righteousness and pretended sobriety of custom.

But, in Hawthorne’s world, sin must be spoken of, or else it eats away at everyone. The Scarlet Letter pays heed to the spiritual and emotional as though they were the same. To feel whole, the sinner must confess, so as to breathe freely; conversely, so as not to overstep the bounds of humility, the hearer must listen and withhold judgment. Desires are human, not particular to individuals. To Hawthorne’s seventeenth-century Boston, this idea was revolutionary — and in some ways, it still is, not in what American society says, but what it does.

Hawthorne’s style can take getting used to, even for readers accustomed to nineteenth-century literature. Not only does he tell, tell, tell, explaining damn near everything, he imbues the smallest moments with hard-working metaphorical swoop:

The mother’s impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light, of the intervening substance. Above all, the warfare of Hester’s spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl. She could recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart. They were now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child’s disposition, but, later in the day of earthly existence, might be prolific of the storm and whirlwind.

That style deserves consideration in its context, however. Hawthorne was countering the point of view that all wisdom and truth comes from God; he argues that humans can find truth anywhere if they look hard enough, particularly within themselves. The Scarlet Letter, published nine years before The Origin of Species, feels like kin to Darwin, though it has nothing to do with biology: Both works deal with the power of observation and its overriding importance. Hawthorne wants you to see his abstractions, as though the spiritual world inhabits the physical. Often, he succeeds.

Strange, but I had avoided reading The Scarlet Letter, and I’m not the type to shun the classics. As a high school sophomore, I transferred out of an English class, no mean trick, led by a teacher with whom I knew I’d quarrel, and who’d just begun discussing this novel. The teacher whose class I transferred into turned out to be a mentor, so I got the better deal–and swapped Hawthorne for Dostoyevsky, Huxley, Orwell, and Zamiatin besides. But I still didn’t let Hawthorne off the hook—there’s a Puritan in me too—and more than fifty years passed before I found out what Hester’s story has to offer.

Don’t make the mistake I made. At least take a look at The Scarlet Letter.

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

The young women in white

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Building on last week’s post about the Seattle parade, here’s more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

In the parade, the white horses, white flower petals, and young women in white dresses all played to symbolism of feminine purity. Why?

Not for the first time in history, but in a context particular to the First World War, belligerents sought to persuade their able-bodied male citizens that they must fight to save womanhood. The idea pervaded recruitment propaganda in Britain and the United States, likely because neither country had been invaded, and so had no self-evident reason to fight.

When Congress declared war in April 1917, American recruiters had to rouse a nation comfortably at peace. To do so, they evoked wartime events that had not budged neutrality one inch when they happened but were now recast to prompt every man to do his duty or risk being called less than a man. A key reference point was the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

While the invasion was happening, the press failed to convey its true horror and went for the sensational. Though the invaders executed thousands of Belgian civilians, committing arson and pillage, alleged rapes and mutilations of nuns, women, and young girls were what made headlines. Even as American newspapers exploited these lurid stories for the shock value, most reserved judgment, doubting that the disciplined German Army could have permitted such outrages.

Then, in May 1915, a German submarine sank the liner Lusitania, killing almost 1200 people, including 128 Americans. In what amounted to a publicist’s perfect storm, a week later, the British government published an official account of the Belgian invasion atrocities, mentioning the firing squads, burning, and looting but once again playing up accusations of rapes and mutilation, which rested on hearsay evidence from unsworn witnesses.

That lapse went largely unnoticed, and the report electrified American opinion. If the Germans could sink the Lusitania, mightn’t they have committed sexual atrocities in Belgium? Isolationists could argue that was still none of America’s business, but the perceived outrages would not go away. For instance, the New York Tribune, a pro-Allied paper, printed a drawing of a Belgian widow comforting a weeping Miss Columbia. The caption suggests attitudes common to the time: “At Least They Only Drown Your Women.”

Come 1917, then, American recruiters had no trouble tapping into beliefs about German sexual atrocities and, tacitly or explicitly, using them to goad to action any man who called himself a man. This poster, promoted by the Hollywood film industry, employs blatant sexual imagery, with a half-clad Miss Columbia–in white, of course.

Schneck, 1917, Acme Litho. Co. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

But the propagandists were just getting started.

Trauma and Post-Trauma: Death at Greenway

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Review: Death at Greenway, by Lori Rader-Day
Morrow, 2021. 414 pp. $28

Bridget Kelly, a nineteen-year-old nurse-in-training, has been dismissed from a London hospital, probably an unusual occurrence to begin with. Worse, this is April 1941, wartime, and with nurses in such short supply, you just know Bridget must have messed up horribly. In her parting words, the nurse matron has harangued Bridget for coldness, arrogance, inability to concentrate, and more besides. Whew.

But Matron has given her one last chance: to accompany a group of young children to Devon, where they’re to be evacuated for the war’s duration, presumably safe from the bombs hitting London daily. The country house that will be their billet belongs to Agatha Christie, a fact of no consequence to Bridget, who doesn’t read stories — they hit her in the gut, literally.

Agatha Christie, Dame of the British Empire, in 1958; photo of a plaque (courtesy Torre Abbey.jpg: Violetriga, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rather, she’s wondering how to manage ten children, a chore that scares her, and for which she thinks she has no aptitude. Meanwhile, she’s reeling from the deaths of her mother and younger siblings from a German bomb, so the sight of any child can be dangerous for her.

When she first sets eyes on her charges-to-be at the train station, her heart sinks, because she has imagined older children, easier to care for:

The children were tots, baby fat in their knees below shorts and skirts, socks pulled up or sliding, shoes scuffed or untied. They had tags affixed to their coats and child-sized gas masks in paper cases and straps around their necks. They wore caps or hats or bonnets and flung them to the ground in a tantrum. Those who were carried by their mums kicked to be let down. Two were infants, dear God.

But Bridget has one hope, a fellow nurse to share the load — until that nurse, who claims also to be named Bridget Kelly, doesn’t seem to know the first thing about children, the human body, or caring for anyone else’s needs. For that matter, as Bridget discovers, few people or things she runs across are as they seem. No sooner have they arrived in Devon than she has her doubts about the house staff, the people leading the evacuation, and the local characters, whose intense suspicion of outsiders may have a darker side.

Her skepticism is often warranted, but as Matron’s criticisms ring repeatedly in her ears, you begin to wonder just what was going on there. For instance, is Bridget really arrogant? Hardly; she’s too self-effacing by half. She only seems withdrawn, because when circumstances call for intense emotion, her post-traumatic stress kicks in, manifesting itself as the aforementioned hits to the gut. And that, of course, she can’t reveal.

But that’s only for starters. As she tries to settle in, an intruder or two stalks the property, precious food supplies go missing, and, eventually, a dead body washes up on shore. Connected events, or coincidental?

Mysteries and thrillers generally go by the moniker of plot-driven, but not Death at Greenway. This one’s character all the way, and it’s masterful. You get the nurses, the staff, the neighbors, the atmosphere, the house, the PTSD, and they all move the story. Aside from Bridget and her nursing colleague, I single out the local doctor, who’s too handsome by half and sensitive to feelings but somehow off, and an artist living on the property who’s got a battleship-sized sense of entitlement.

Rader-Day peels back layer upon layer of mystery, misunderstanding, and “no — and furthermore.” If the narrative proceeds more gradually than in other mysteries — the dead body, for instance, doesn’t show up until page 115 – the tension nevertheless keeps you riveted.

How? The author shows you Bridget beneath the skin and the fear, isolation, and resentment everyone breathes with each inhalation, which marks them and makes for potent drama. I admire that kind of storytelling, which doesn’t need a man with a gun to raise the stakes. This narrative may seem “quiet” for a mystery, to use a publishing buzzword that no two people define the same way. Gentle reader, don’t be deterred.

I’ve also never read as gripping or accurate a description of post-traumatic stress, unless it was in Daniel Mason’s fine novel, The Winter Soldier — and he’s a psychiatrist. Moreover, Rader-Day captures the underside of Britain’s so-called finest hour, portraying less-than-heroic behaviors, reminiscent of Lissa Evans’s novels, though without the irony or humor. Here in Devon, they’re playing for keeps.

For those who like Agatha Christie — I don’t particularly — the setting will appeal as well. And just in case you’re thinking from what I’ve said that the mystery must take second place to the characterization and somehow muddle its way through, let me assure you that the plot goes through as many twists and turns as the seaside Devon roadways.

Death at Greenway is a fine mystery and a brilliant re-creation of the British home front, worth your time in both respects.

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

Not just a parade

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Here’s a nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.

To soak up the historical background, I read several months’ worth of the Seattle Times from 1919 and learned about a parade in late April welcoming home some four hundred soldiers from Over There.

But it wasn’t just a parade. It was as though a phalanx of hopes, attitudes, prejudices, expectations, and flat-out misconceptions marched through Seattle that day, not just men from the 361st Infantry Regiment, 91st (“Wild West”) Division. And the pride, earnestness, gratitude, awkwardness, and ignorance on display provide a stew of conflict in which my protagonists, a man and a woman, have to swim.

The parade organizers mixed solemnity with “stunts,” a word typically applied then to party games or entertainments. The soldiers, supposedly the stars of the show, made up the rear. Next came white horses drawing a large gold star, to commemorate the fallen. Farther up, young women in white rode the running boards of cars and strewed white flower petals along the route.

Ahead of them walked Elk Lodge brothers dressed in feather headdresses and war paint, while leading the column were police officers wearing chaps who fired off blanks from their pistols. Cowboys and Indians; a Wild West “stunt.”

Front page, Seattle Times, April 26, 1919. Note the soldier’s evergreen shoulder patch, emblem of the 91st Division, and the “361” on his cap. Note too the hero-worshiping sister/wife/sweetheart.

I tried beginning my novel with this scene and wound up cutting it. But my male protagonist is a soldier who thinks the hoopla insults his dead friends and wonders what country he’s come home to. That newspaper article was a gold mine.

Conspiracy on the Western Front: From a Dark Horizon

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Review: From a Dark Horizon, by Luke McCallin
Berkley, 2021. 505 pp. $28

As summer parches the despoiled earth of northwestern France in 1918, young Lieutenant Gregor Reinhardt, Seventeenth Prussian Fusiliers, has fought both east and west. A blooded warrior who commands a company of men older than himself, he senses the cause is lost but fights hard because that’s what he must do, and because he’s loyal to his comrades.

Consequently, when a booby-trap explodes at a divisional staff meeting behind the lines, killing several senior officers, and a soldier he recommended for a battlefield commission is blamed for the deaths and quickly executed, Reinhardt can’t sit with this. Receiving tacit permission to investigate from a sympathetic colonel — not that he would have twiddled his thumbs otherwise — the nineteen-year-old lieutenant begins to ask questions.

No sooner has he done so than he falls into a rabbit hole of conspiracy and murder, with blood having blood to eliminate witnesses; sometimes, he’s the target. After all, he served on the Eastern Front, where he came in contact with Russian soldiers infected by defeatist, socialist ideals, and the protégé executed for the booby-trap explosion was known to be insubordinate, radical, and a malcontent. So Reinhardt’s the perfect fall guy.

Participants in the conspiracy, whose goal and breadth he can’t penetrate at first, appear to include very senior commanders, deserters, Bolsheviks, doctors treating shell-shocked soldiers, dissenters, and, pervading all, the frustration and anger at a war that continues to chew up and spit out lives, though there can be no hope of German victory. The narrative therefore makes an unusual coming-of-age story of a young man trying to live morally where few, if any, morals exist. You may also read the novel as a labyrinthine thriller or mystery, with qualities of each, which will keep you guessing until the last page. But from whatever standpoint you approach it, From a Dark Horizon is first-rate First World War fiction.

Start with Reinhardt, who, despite his experience and responsibility, is still just an adolescent, truculent and earnest, occasionally pompous when he spouts principles, a character whose actions don’t always match his good intentions. Human, in other words. Most others around him have their facets too; I particularly like his sergeant, fiercely loyal but also brutally honest, and a mercurial captain who seems wildly unpredictable and who Reinhardt thinks is on his side but can’t be sure.

McCallin also displays an impressive command of the battlefield, rest area, home front, chain of command, you name it. No detail escapes his eye, and everything feels authentic, something rare in First World War novels. Consider this passage, one of many that bring the scene alive while also conveying feeling:

There were convoys bearing food and others bearing straw and hay. There were water convoys, and convoys of medical supplies, and long trains of horses and mules being driven up as replacements for those at the front. Troops hunched forward, each man heavy with equipment, shovels and helmets or metal spikes or rolls of wire clanking on their backs. Officers rode in limousines, and huge steam-driven tractors dragged monstrous howitzers. The noise was deafening, and the air was choked with dust. Sometimes singing would intermittently drown out the neighing of the horses and the clatter of harness and the bone-deep throb of motors, but the songs were few and the men marched to a different, darker tune than they had marched to in the spring of that year.

McCallin, who follows the history faithfully, re-creates the mood of both army and home front. He conveys the weariness for sacrifice that seems to have no purpose, the grumblings of revolution, and the political maneuvering to cast blame once the war finally ends. I admire this panorama very much, both for its historical grasp and adept fictional portrayal.

These German sailors, among others, mutinied at Kiel in November 1918. The uprising, which ignited unrest around the country, led within days to the armistice (courtesy German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I like the thriller/mystery aspect as well, though several twists toward the end feel rather convenient, with fortuitous arrivals of powerful characters. One such character in particular, who seems to slide in and out of his ability to process what’s happening around him, is too helpful to the story as well. Even so, “no — and furthermore” bleeds through the pages, for whenever Reinhardt discovers the next link in the chain of conspiracy, that person typically winds up dead.

Enough bodies fall (more from foul play than combat) to staff a platoon, and the Byzantine links among them necessitate frequent recapitulations, usually in the form of Reinhardt explaining what he’s learned, and how. From a Dark Horizon, though its pages turn rapidly, can be talky at times.

This volume marks the last in the wartime series about Reinhardt’s exploits. But in his afterword, McCallin promises that his hero will have further adventures in the 1920s. I’m ready.

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

My debut novel, Lonely Are the Brave

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I’m delighted to tell you I’ve realized the dream I’ve nurtured for more than a half-century: In April 2023, Cynren Press will publish my novel, Lonely Are the Brave. So, starting next week, in addition to my regular book reviews, I’ll periodically post about the novel’s historical background, with occasional sidelights as to how I incorporated those facts or events into the narrative — or tried to and failed.

But for today, let’s stick with the premise:

In 1919, scandal stirs Lumberton, a small (fictional) logging town amid the evergreens an hour outside Seattle: War hero Rollie Birch, whose wife died while he was overseas, turns at-home father; and Kay Sorensen, the timber baron’s daughter, dares defy her politician husband to pursue a business career.

Almost overnight, Rollie goes from town celebrity to pariah. Nobody will talk to him, gossips snicker that his infant daughter isn’t his, and even his beloved sister wishes he’d give up his crazy idea. Meanwhile, Kay fears her tyrannical husband, running for state legislature, will make her leave the job she loves, and wonders if his bizarre public attacks on Rollie, who served in his platoon during the war, somehow explain what’s gone wrong in her marriage.

Discreetly, she begs Rollie to tell her what her husband did during the war, to which he reluctantly agrees, provided Kay reveal what she knows about his late wife’s possible infidelity.

But trading wartime secrets has unexpected consequences, not least for fragile, lonely hearts and cherished beliefs—and the ensuing public storm threatens to destroy Kay and Rollie both.

……………………….

More to come.

Korean Saga: Beasts of a Little Land

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Review: Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim
Ecco, 2021. 399 pp. $27

In 1917, seven years into the Japanese occupation of Korea, a hunter tracks a tiger because its skin is worth a small fortune, and he hopes to save his starving family from death. But he nearly perishes in the snow during the hunt, and again when he runs into a party of Japanese officers intent on bagging a trophy, any trophy. However, when he saves one officer from the tiger — without killing the beast or even holding a weapon — the officer spares his life.

Meanwhile, a woman sells her eleven-year-old daughter, Jade, to a high-class courtesan, who accepts the girl despite her unprepossessing looks and character.

From these two events, whose aftereffects play out over decades, comes a saga about wealth and poverty, freedom and depression, and, perhaps most important, the ability (or lack thereof) to see beneath surfaces or deal with emotional vulnerability — indeed, any emotions at all. Along the way, the novel mirrors the story of Korean independence, emphasizing the twenty years between the tiger hunt and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1937, though the narrative continues to 1965.

Japanese poster or postcard, artist unknown, from the 1930s, which reads, “Japan-Korea. Teamwork and Unity. Champions of the World” (courtesy http://populargusts.blogspot.de/2010/07/ reunification-assimilation-and-three.html, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Besides Jade, her mentor, and the two courtesans-in-training among whom she grows up, there’s an orphan boy who lives in the street, whom Jade befriends, and a couple of businessmen and a writer-turned-politician. Jade crosses paths, and sometimes more, with all of them. Each represents a particular emotional type, whether the violent man who expresses himself through his fists, the blueblood conscious of his rank and importance, and so forth.

I’m not the first critic to point out that Kim’s Japanese officers summon up a stereotype. They’re practically stick figures whose stunted limbs consist of greed, sadism, the conception of honor (read: pride), and utter incomprehension of human feeling. On the surface, they’re almost out of the wartime propaganda film. But Kim has two goals, I think, which grant the portrait a purpose.

First, she’s writing for an audience that might have heard of the atrocities in Nanjing in 1937 and maybe the so-called comfort women conscripted for military brothels, but for whom Japanese brutalities in Asia are largely a blank — and her story begins decades before them, anyway.

Second, the officers’ incapacity to view people, places, or objects from any perspective other than utilitarian extends to many of the Korean characters too, especially the men. But several women buy into this philosophy as well, assuming that once they lose their looks — in their thirties! — they’ve nothing left, and their lives are over. In that way, the Japanese officers’ fatal flaw, lack of heart, is on the same continuum as everyone else’s. As a result, few characters in this novel are happy or even know what that might look like, except possibly in retrospect.

The narrative worldview may take getting used to; so does the prose style. At first, the author’s manner of explaining everything — landscape, actions, feelings — struck me wrong. I admire her writing for its simple elegance, certain passages of which are beautiful without calling attention to themselves, so I wondered why she told everything rather than show it. But I stuck with it, and I think I see what she’s after, a panoramic discourse akin to Tolstoy or, as with the opening scenes depicting the tiger hunt, a legend. See what you make of this typical passage, which parses the thoughts of SungSoo, a businessman, on finding a former lover talking to a onetime friend whom he looks down on, as news of the emperor’s death has reached them:

Once the soju [liquor] had circulated through their bodies, each began to feel more comfortable — not about the emperor’s death, but the situation among themselves. It is always excruciating to discover that one’s distinct connections, who ought to belong firmly and chastely in separate spheres of one’s life, are somehow acquainted, and perhaps more intimately than one would like. Each of them keenly suffered from this, though SungSoo in particular took this as an insult and a betrayal. His good breeding and the soothing effects of soju were the only things that kept him from succumbing to the jealousy that burned deeply in his chest.

You may like this style, or it may feel distant, but if you read Beasts of a Little Land, get used to it. As with many sagas (not my usual fare), the attempt to make everything larger than life can seem stilted, especially when the crossing of paths feels contrived, or scenes unfold according to a predictable pattern. I wish too that Kim or her editor had weeded out phrases like blow off, reach out to, okay with, and playbook, when we’re supposed to be reading about early twentieth-century Korea.

But taken in its entirety, Beasts of a Little Land has something going for it, not least history that may be unfamiliar.

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