The Terror of 1492: By Fire, By Water

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Review: By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan
Other Press, 2010. 284 pp. $16

Luis de Santángel, chancellor of Aragon and trusted counselor of King Fernando, has a fatal secret, half of which is common knowledge. Everyone knows that three generations back, Santángel’s family was Jewish. Such is the suspicion against so-called conversos, however, that a man like Santángel, despite considerable service to the crown, must never be seen talking to a Jew or found possessing Jewish texts or ritual objects. Consequently, the other half of Luis’s secret is that he’s begun to feel curiosity about his Jewish roots.

But the Inquisition, led by Tomás Torquemada, Queen Ysabel’s confessor, operates a large, many-tentacled network of spies and informers. And when they sweep up a close friend of Santángel’s, a fellow converso, for having secretly observed Jewish rituals and discussed the holy texts, Luis has had enough. Recognizing the danger to himself and his son, and believing that Torquemada’s brutalities are un-Christian behavior and unwise politics, he decides that the Inquisition must be checked. But that is a very tall order, notwithstanding King Fernando’s comparative lack of religious zeal. Ysabel has enough for both.

I like how Kaplan handles the politics, whether royal or ecclesiastical. The characterizations of Torquemada, Fernando, and Ysabel have depth and conviction. It would be too easy to betray them as cardboard villains, but Kaplan takes the high road, showing them as true to themselves. Consider, for example, this passage through Torquemada’s eyes:

The inquisitor general loved the sharp, rough, solid feel of skillfully hewn stones, joined together with or without mortar. They yielded to the will of man only with difficulty, but once shaped, did not budge. They stayed where one placed them. They performed their humble tasks without grumbling or questioning, holding up a building, providing shelter through storms, giving townsfolk a place to gather and pray. Of course, they were not alive, but they were part of God’s creation, and thus worthy of man’s respect. Aye, of man’s wonderment.

Of particular interest is how Fernando, as King of Aragon, is the less powerful monarch, conscious that Ysabel brought more to their marriage than he did. He’s much more interested in conquering the lone remaining Moorish bastion, Granada, than in church affairs, a preference that has disastrous consequences. I also like how the narrative depicts another friend of Santángel’s, a Genoese sailor named Cristóbal Colón. He has the harebrained idea, based largely on religious texts, that he can sail west from Spain and reach both the Indies and Jerusalem. Santángel has arranged an audience for Colón with the monarchs.

Luis de Santángel, by an unknown nineteenth-century artist (courtesy Museo Naval de Madrid via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

I’m less drawn to the other characters and subplots. Luis, a widower, falls for a beautiful Jewish widow in Granada, Judith Migdal. She’s a silversmith, an extraordinary fact, but one that few people seem to remark on or object to. That idealized glow shrouds much of what she does, for Judith has no apparent faults, and her unerring social skills always save the day. Kaplan re-creates Jewish life in Granada with love and fervor, and I like reading about that. But aside from subtly underlining that the Spanish monarchs are bent on destroying a culture of which they understand nothing and from which they could learn much, its place in the narrative sometimes feels tenuous. The romance is frankly unbelievable and turns on a cliché.

Finally, the narrative seems to suspend itself during the religious debates that move Santángel closer to the faith of his ancestors, and the relative absence of tension feels jarring, given that these discussions could cost the participants their lives. I understand why Kaplan has included these scenes, because he wants to show the natural human curiosity about what is forbidden, and to score a few philosophical and theological points. But I think the novel would have worked better had he focused more on the politics, and I wish those had determined the ending rather than the deus ex machina he employs.

Nevertheless, By Fire, By Water has something to say, and though it reenacts events more than five centuries old, to recount the lengths to which bigots will go unfortunately retains deep relevance. Thirty years ago, when visiting an antiquarian in Toledo who had Jewish ritual objects for sale, I mentioned the expulsion, only to be told that I’d “insulted” his king and queen. By Fire, By Water is as clear a fictional exposure of that attitude as you’re likely to find.

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

A Ship of Fools: Dangerous Crossing

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Review: Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys
Atria, 2018. 351 pp. $26

In late July 1939, Lily Shepard sails from her native England to Australia, among other young women recruited for domestic service (and duly chaperoned). Like her half-dozen peers and, indeed, most everyone else on the Orontes, Lily’s escaping a crushing disappointment, or trying to. Only it seems that her past haunts her in new guises, whether it’s the same sort of unsuitable man to whom she’s drawn or increasingly complicated moral decisions that seem all too familiar. And though Lily doesn’t realize it, or prefers not to, the world is sliding rapidly toward war.

It’s hard to read this novel without recalling Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which featured a similar collection of thwarted escapists butting heads against their shortcomings or one another en route to prewar Nazi Germany. But Dangerous Crossing has its own pleasures, chief among them the psychological suspense. A prologue, which jumps ahead to when the ship docks in Australia, reveals that a crime has been committed on board. After finishing the book, I understand why Rhys has done this, and it’s extremely clever, but Dangerous Crossing isn’t a mystery per se.

The narrative derives its considerable tension from Lily’s confused attempts to understand her fellow passengers’ behavior, especially that of a young man who seems attracted to her, yet inexplicably blows hot and cold. She’s particularly vulnerable, because, in her last domestic situation, the young man of the house nearly seduced her with false claims of love, only to abandon her and damage someone else. Also puzzling are the Campbells, two wealthy, spoiled libertines rumored to have a scandalous past. They’ve clearly offended their fellows in first class and force themselves on Lily’s circle a deck below. The Campbells treat her and her friends like playthings, but she’s fascinated, despite herself. Then there’s a Jewish woman who just managed to get out of Austria, but who hasn’t heard from her family and who’s being persecuted by an unidentified enemy on board — or is it, as the ship’s many anti-Semites suggest, her fantasies?

As these puzzles proliferate and deepen in complexity, conflicting social prejudices and mores emerge. Rhys excels here, portraying class divisions and various shades of racial bigotry and anti-Semitism, turning the Orontes into a microcosm of a hate-filled world pole-vaulting toward catastrophe. In these circumstances, a lesser writer would content herself with stereotypes, but Rhys takes the high road, peeling away layers of bitterness and jealousy to reveal the yearnings underneath. Lily, too, has her moral failures, though I wish Rhys had plumbed her nascent envy a little further.

Rhys sets her scene well, both in ports of call and aboard ship:

After dinner there is a palpable frisson in the air as the band sets up… Though she hasn’t had anything to drink, Lily nevertheless feels intoxicated. It’s a mixture of the music and the beautiful clothes, the silks and velvets and chiffons, the peacock greens and sapphire blues, the russets and magentas; of the different fragrances, so recently applied, that mingle in the heady air — musks and florals and citruses, the woody smell of the cigar smokers.… And, above all that, the awareness that they are here on this floating world, apart from all other worlds, bound all of them by the country they have come from and the one they are going to, and by all the thousands of miles of travel that lie in between.

Dangerous Crossing feels entirely comfortable in its portrayal of 1939, and yet it’s the author’s first historical novel, so kudos there. I wish, though, she hadn’t told her story mostly in the present tense, because the shifts in time are sometimes jarring. Beyond that, though, she’s so sure-handed that I wonder why she included the prologue. Did she fear that her depiction of the competitive shipboard atmosphere, intensified by the heat of the southern latitudes, would fail to hold the reader? Did she not trust her skill at creating suspense without revealing that a crime has taken place?

Read Dangerous Crossing and decide for yourself.

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

Who Sups with the Devil: Manhattan Beach

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Review: Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 2017. 433 pp. $28

Anna Kerrigan likes to join her father, Eddie, on business trips around their native New York City. Anna’s too young to understand just what Eddie does for a living, and since this is the Depression, plenty of people get by in strange ways. But she’s proud, at his insistence, to provide another pair of eyes and ears, and he loves her emotional strength and quick-wittedness beyond her years. When she’s almost twelve, in 1937, Eddie brings her to meet Dexter Styles, a man who, she gathers, is very important to her family.

Years later, Eddie has disappeared. The war has come, and Anna has taken a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She runs into Styles again, and she doesn’t recognize him at first; but she realizes he’s a gangster, and that sets her to wondering whether he knows what happened to Eddie.

At the time this photo was taken at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in mid- April 1945, four aircraft carriers were under construction (courtesy U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons)

I expected to love Manhattan Beach, not least because of the rave reviews in the press, but I find the book a disappointment. Still, there’s much to praise. From her solid, if complex, premise, Egan has spun an ambitious novel about greed, power, lust, money, self-image, and innocence lost — the important stuff. She writes compelling, many-faceted characters, develops them over time, and gives them room to stretch. Nor does she pull punches with her storyline, so her people take plenty of punishment. She has also researched her historical ground with care and love, revealing myriad nooks and crannies of Depression and wartime New York, seamlessly rendered. Some years ago, the New-York Historical Society ran a terrific exhibit on the social mood of wartime New York and the hundreds of businesses and institutions that supplied the war effort. Manhattan Beach is like walking through that exhibit, except it speaks.

Egan gives you the harbor, both topside and below water; nightclubs and gambling dens; Brooklyn walkups and country clubs; ships and churches; anyplace you could want. And she peoples them with working stiffs, sailors, soldiers, young women doing “men’s jobs,” bankers, society folk, and hoods. The parent-child scenes are wonderful; a few took my breath away. And especially with her most important characters, Egan takes care to show their inner lives, as with this reminiscence of Eddie’s:

Lying in the vast dormitory, hearing his breath melt into the collective sigh of so many boys asleep, Eddie was shamed by his own meagerness: narrow hips; a sharp, unremarkable face; hair like dirty straw. Even more than the orphans’ annual excursion to the circus, he thirsted for the moment each month when the protectory barber’s hands would touch his scalp briefly, indifferently, yet capable of soothing him almost to sleep. He was of no more consequence than an empty cigarette packet. At times the brusque mass of everything that was not him seemed likely to crush Eddie into dust the way he crushed the dried-out moths that collected in piles on the protectory windowsills. At times he wanted to be crushed.

So what’s not to like, you ask? The narrative is so complicated that the pieces don’t fit together, and I have trouble believing much of it. Styles’s life as a gangster and Anna’s as a Navy Yard worker make sense apart, but trying to weld them—at least in the way Egan wants, pushing her characters to change–the components fail to mesh, so the effort feels forced. For instance, though I understand why Styles married his wife, Harriet, daughter of an admiral turned banker, I don’t see why she married him (and that’s a key part of the setup). More significantly, the story works very hard to bring Styles on a tour through the Navy Yard, using his daughter, Tabatha, as the catalyst, whereupon she drops out of the novel almost completely, even though she and her father have a special relationship. But the biggest trouble I have is imagining that Anna would go near Styles after realizing who he is, how dangerous he can be, and what he might have done to hurt her. She wants to let loose, yes; but she’s too smart, has such a strong sense of self-preservation, and has worked so hard to get where she is that I can’t see her risking it. Not for him.

I admire Manhattan Beach for its emotional range, breadth of theme, descriptive power, and bold scheme. I think Egan’s an excellent writer. But this novel left me unsatisfied.

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

Radical Murder: The Infidel Stain

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Review: The Infidel Stain, by M. J. Carter
Putnam, 2016. 420 pp. $27

When a young girl finds the mutilated body of a printer spreadeagled across his press, you’d think the police would take a keen interest, especially since a similar murder follows shortly. But this is London in 1841, and many forces conspire to discourage official inquiry into these horrid crimes. So Viscount Allington, an evangelical social reformer and member of Parliament, hires two private “inquirers,” men who distinguished themselves in India, Jeremiah Blake and Captain William Avery.

These two, the protagonists of Carter’s previous novel, Strangler Vine, will be lucky to survive their quest with limb and liberty intact, let alone solve the case. At first, it’s not clear whether someone in high places has forbidden any investigation, or whether the so-called new police (Sir Robert Peel’s brainchild of 1829) think they have better things to do, in particular to penetrate and destroy the Chartists, a so-called radical political movement. Consequently, the poor people inhabiting the back alleys of Drury Lane assume that the constabulary takes no heed of the murders in their midst. Justice exists only for the rich, the titled, the powerful.

William Edward Kilburn’s daguerreotype, View of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, April 1848 (courtesy Royal Collection Trust via Wikimedia Commons)

But when Blake and Avery happen on links between the Chartists, the murders, and several people who desire the case to remain closed, complexities abound. That would seem to require a delicate approach, but our two inquirers charge ahead. Blake, the Holmes of this duo, is irascible, withholding, streetwise, gifted at disguise and deceit, and utterly disdainful of titles and social distinctions. Avery, a Tory by birth and inclination, lacks his partner’s knowledge and sympathies, but he knows how to talk to people jealous of their rank, and he’s a good man with his fists in a tight spot, if all too ready to use them. The unlikely friendship between these two, which Avery seems to want more than Blake — a nice touch — supplies an excellent counterpoint to their investigation and the political forces at work. Unlike Strangler Vine, in which I felt that Carter unfairly overplayed Blake’s stubborn reticence to keep the reader guessing, here, she lets him be a somewhat more responsive partner. And when he does withhold information from Avery, it’s to allow the straightforward, honest captain to play his part in deception with greater conviction, much as Holmes did with Watson on occasion.

Carter tells her story with great skill, letting nothing come easily to her protagonists; “no; and furthermore” makes its presence felt every few pages. She also re-creates London of the “Hungry Forties” with power and vividness, which allows her to derive tension from the politics. Avery is loyal to Blake and wishes to see justice done, but his instincts lead him to consider the Chartists dangerous to peace and security merely by demanding universal male suffrage and parliamentary reforms. Even so, as the good captain literally wades through the muck and the poverty of underclass London, his long-held views become harder to sustain.

Having studied and written about that time myself, I’m fascinated by the Chartists and note with surprise and pleasure how Carter brings in several real-life figures I admire. The issues she raises, most particularly income inequality and the undue influence of wealth and power, are very topical. She’s not afraid to make her protagonists’ flaws significant and visible. But it’s not just characters, plot, or politics that make The Infidel Stain worth reading. Another attraction is the prose, which depicts both a scene and a state of mind. Here’s Avery, recently returned from India, not yet used to England or its biggest city:

Five years before, I had left England a country traversed by horse and carriage; I had returned to find it in thrall to steam and iron.

I had stepped into the green-and-gold carriage, sat on the wooden pews of second class and watched the air filled with steam, as if we were traveling on a bed of cloud. I had felt the rush of speed and watched the curious effect of the countryside melting into a blur of green as it rushed past the window, or rather as we rushed past it. And, of course, there was the noise: the clank and wheeze of the wheels on the rail, the asthmatic puff of the engine, and those sudden unholy screeches — the wheels breaking, or the air forcing its way through the whistle. We had reached the extraordinary speed of thirty miles an hour. It was remarkable, exhilarating, unsettling — not unlike London itself.

When I tell you that this fine section appears on the first page of the first chapter, but that it doesn’t begin the book, you know what I’m going to say: Why did Carter need to write a prologue? But read The Infidel Stain anyway.

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

Dead Reckoning: The Dig

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Review: The Dig, by John Preston
Other Press, 2007. 259 pp. $17

Edith Pretty, a sickly, grieving widow, has long wondered what, if anything, lies hidden in the burial mounds that dot her East Anglia property. Since it’s spring 1939, and Britain is belatedly preparing for the war that everyone expects, Mrs. Pretty decides to seize the moment. She hires Basil Brown, a taciturn, self-effacing “soil expert” recommended by a local museum, to dig where he thinks most likely. He receives room, board, and little more than a pound a week.

Even if you don’t read the publisher’s description, which tells you in its first words about an archaeological treasure, you know that Basil will unearth something special. And even if you’ve never heard of Sutton Hoo, the celebrated find to which the summary also refers, you know that the splendor of the result will stand in strong contrast to the unassuming man. Further, because he is so unassuming — and because he’s a low-paid nobody — there will be plenty of somebodies, or would-be somebodies, queuing up to thrust him aside.

Sutton Hoo, where archaeologists unearthed priceless clues to sixth- and seventh-century life in England (2011, courtesy amitchell125 at English Wikipedia)

So the story of this slim, engaging novel isn’t about the find as much as what it means. The Dig explores connection, mostly the lack of it, and how people try to compensate. For instance, Edith Pretty misses her late husband deeply and feels her age and ill health overtaking her. So for her, the excavation evokes death, of course, but also a last project affirming her existence and a dream she shared with the man she loved. She also worries about her young son, Robert, a lonely, energetic child, and what his future will be; it’s unspoken, but she’s thinking firstly of the war, and her own mortality. As for Basil, he seems not to mind spending several weeks away from his quarrelsome, emotionally distant wife. The excavation excites him, if anything does, but it’s as if he’s on a working holiday, and the money talks.

Preston’s storytelling varies in quality. He starts with one of those infernal, useless prologues (which then reappears, word for word, later on). There’s little plot to speak of, except the gradual progress toward discovery, and the power plays that ensue. But Preston’s narrators — Edith, Basil, and Peggy Piggott, an archaeologist whose husband was her professor at university — carry the day. You see the characters’ yearnings, which they seldom voice; the vicious social snobbery that everyone seems to accept as the natural order; and the oncoming war, whose tension simmers in the story’s peripheral vision, occasionally intruding, only to glide away.

The prose takes few flights of fancy and, perhaps like the novel’s most sympathetic character, is humble and workmanlike, even in Edith’s class-conscious voice:

I sat on the window seat, staring out. Trying to ward off thoughts that came towards me like flocks of angry birds. One memory in particular kept returning: Robert running across the grass with his arms stretched out and his cheeks full of air. And then my pushing him away. I know that I am failing him. The awareness sits there, like a weight on my shoulders, pressing down. Constantly reminding me that whatever capacity I once possessed for motherhood is disappearing.

All that seems left is this ever-widening gap between the scale of my devotion and my ability to succor him. To protect him.

Yet The Dig possesses a quiet eloquence, at times. I particularly like the scenes in Peggy’s narration in which, without exactly saying or thinking so, she realizes that her husband can’t or won’t offer her the warmth she craves. It’s especially poignant because they’re newlyweds, having shortened their honeymoon to join the dig. The way the men talk to her, husband included, is worse than condescending, though the reader understands that better than Peggy does.

Operating under the surface, if you will, The Dig may not seem weighty or significant. But I find it memorable nonetheless, for its small moments and large themes uncovered with a light hand, much as with the pastry brush that Basil uses gently to avoid damaging ancient artifacts.

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

Cloak and Swagger: The Vineyard

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Review: The Vineyard, by Maria Dueñas
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García
Atria, 2017. 530 pp. $26

When Mauro Larrea speaks, people listen. Admired in Mexico City for his business acumen, ability to take daredevil risks without blinking, and to carry himself as if he belongs wherever he goes, Mauro has what most would consider an enviable position. But he has also lost much in life — a couple fingers of his left hand, to an accident when he labored in silver mines in his youth; his beloved wife, Elvira, who died shortly after giving birth to their second child, Nicolás; his homeland (he was born in Spain); and now, nearly his entire fortune. The industrialist to whom he paid an exorbitant sum to ship him the latest in mining equipment has just died at the battle of Bull Run – for it’s 1861, and the Norteamericanos are slaughtering each other.

Not only is Mauro ruined, his adult children’s futures are at stake, for they would lose face, social position, and, in the case of Nicolás, an advantageous marriage. So for their sakes as well as his own, Mauro must leave Mexico City before the news gets out and make it seem as if his departure is simply another surprising but brilliant stroke in his inimitable entrepreneurial strategy. How he achieves this, I’ll leave you to discover, but I give you my word that he’s less than scrupulous, and that it’s very complicated.

So is the rest of The Vineyard, but before we get into that, let’s settle a question of genre. My friends at Atria have been offering me a steady diet of romances, a genre I dislike and have no patience for, though I did review one, thinking it would be something else, and regretted it. No regrets here. The Vineyard deals with deep passions, a rags-to-riches protagonist, Byzantine family cabals, and Latin locales vividly rendered, the themes and background common to much romantic literature. But The Vineyard isn’t a romance, capital R, especially not in the sense comparable to other authors named on the jacket flap.

Rather, in its whirr of subplots, each of which intrudes at the wrong moment for Mauro – but the right one to set up a “no; and furthermore” — the narrative recalls Alexander Dumas, père, and The Three Musketeers. Mauro is no D’Artagnan, a hot-blooded youth thirsting to drive a rapier between an opponent’s ribs. The duels in The Vineyard are psychological, based on swagger without the strut, a high-stakes gamesmanship, poker without the cards. Yet the comparison holds true, I think. And because the focus is money, especially inherited money, and the power it confers, for me that evokes another great nineteenth-century storyteller, Honoré de Balzac. Like him, Dueñas portrays Mauro constantly struggling to remain moral and not always succeeding. And also like Balzac, she pays attention to the emotional connection between character and reader, so that the morality feels personal, not abstract.

Consider this passage, when Mauro, in Cuba, contemplates accepting an offer to buy into a consortium that deals in slaves:

A firm, round breast loomed up at him. Attached to it, a tiny mouth sucking at a nipple. And, all at once, confronted by the simple image of a young mother with dark skin nursing a child, all those thoughts he had been desperately trying to thrust from his mind overwhelmed him with the force of a river bursting its banks. His hands extracting Nicolás from his wife Elvira’s bleeding body; his hands on [his daughter] Mariana’s belly the night of his departure from Mexico, sensing the new, unborn child. The skinny little slave girl violated by her aging master while she was cutting sugarcane; the baby daughter she had brought into the world when she was only thirteen, who was subsequently prized from her as one might peel away the skin of a fruit.

I’m not saying that Dueñas stands beside Dumas or Balzac, only making a point about possible literary ancestors and how she takes her craft seriously. This passage, though full of feeling, is unsentimental–which, to me, seems antithetical to romance, capital R–and describes great savagery, again perhaps atypical to that genre. Better yet, though Dueñas constructs an intricate plot and juggles its interlocking pieces with remarkable skill, she gives you the most compelling reason to turn the pages, fleshed-out characters with inner lives. If The Vineyard falls short, it’s that I find the story a bit operatic for my tastes, especially in its latter stages, with too much screeching. Likewise, some of the derring-do seems incredible, and the family rivalries can be hard to follow. But so long as we’re talking about opera, Dueñas generally hits the high notes, so it’s hard to complain.

The Vineyard is an entertaining, engaging novel.

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

The Tepid Tropics: Conquistadora

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Review: Conquistadora, by Esmeralda Santiago
Knopf, 2011. 414 pp. $28

Be careful what you wish for. That might be the moral of this novel, but it would be hard to blame its nineteenth-century protagonist, Ana Larragoity Cubillas, for wanting what no other young woman of her time, place, and social class could normally dream of. The daughter of a Seville aristocrat whose illustrious sixteenth-century ancestor sailed with Ponce de Leon, Ana asphyxiates in an emotionally and intellectually stifling home where name and pride are the only things that matter. Her parents, angry that she wasn’t born male, see no reason to treat her with warmth or kindness, since she disappointed them and will never amount to anything they approve of. Ana’s sole refuges are the diary her conquistador forebear left behind and the occasional visits to her grandparents’ farm, where she comes alive in the garden, the barn, and the fields. Naturally, these are no pursuits for a girl of noble lineage. But she is determined not to encase herself in crinoline, marry a rich dolt older than herself, and die without seeing the world.

Rescue comes in Ana’s teenage years from a schoolmate, Elena. Not only does Elena provide the friendship Ana has never known, the girls become intimate in ways the nuns at the convent school would not even have the vocabulary to describe. The girls’ encounters are easily the most passionate scenes in the book, and Elena is the instigator, a nifty surprise given that she’s much more conventional than Ana. But that’s not all. Elena has two handsome cousins, twins of fine manners whose merchant father has commercial interests in Puerto Rico. It’s assumed that Inocente will marry Elena; Ramón proposes to Ana. But Ana has a plan: Why don’t they all move to Puerto Rico and run the sugar plantation that belongs to her prospective father-in-law? With the will and persuasiveness typical of her, Ana sells everyone on the idea and convinces her stuffy parents to permit her marriage to a mere merchant’s son.

The difficulty of reconciling a romantic education to the real world is a common theme in literature; Cervantes, Flaubert, and Sinclair Lewis come to mind as practitioners. So it’s a given that Ana’s plan doesn’t work out the way she intended, but she’s nothing if not adaptable. And though the plantation is in far worse shape than she imagined, she’s excited to be there:

She’d been moving toward this destination not knowing exactly where it was, what it looked like, but now Hacienda los Gemelos was spread below her, calling to her. She wanted to be on the ground, to feel its rich earth, to smell it, taste it even. Long before she reached it, she knew she’d love this land, would love it as long as she lived. She was eighteen years old, had arrived at the end of a journey that was also a beginning, one that she’d already decided was final. I’m here, she said to herself. I’m here, she told the breeze. . .

Corvera’s 1893 drawing of Juan Ponce de Leon, first governor of Puerto Rico (courtesy British Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

The vivid descriptions are one thing I like about Conquistadora. Another is the care Santiago takes with her minor characters. She creates touching portraits of the slaves who work Hacienda los Gemelos, many of whom carry traumatic memories of their abduction and transport across the ocean. (The ones who don’t remember were born on the island, often to mothers impregnated by the white overseer.) Since these people are virtually invisible to their owners–except when they try to escape–Santiago is plainly trying to rectify the imbalance, and I applaud that.

That said, however, I find Conquistadora a tepid novel. It reads more like a biography of Ana (or, more properly, Hacienda los Gemelos) than fiction, consisting of events that follow logically, even predictably, and reach no height of feeling, except, as I said, the schoolgirl love affair. There’s no character arc, because you find out all you will ever know about the characters early on, and Santiago tells their emotions more than she shows them, so it feels rote. There’s no story arc either, just episodes. If you drew a diagram of the tension, you’d have a sine curve, not a rising line.

I also dislike the tendentious aspect of the narrative. Ana’s descended from a conquistador, and the title is Conquistadora, after all. You see how she mistreats her slaves, and how they suffer. So how many times do you need to be told directly that she’s much like her ancestor, and that her wealth is built on the dead bodies of enslaved laborers? Quite a few, apparently.

Conquistadora is more interesting for its subject matter than as fiction.

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

Murder in Troubled Times: Beyond Absolution

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Review: Beyond Absolution, by Cora Harrison
Severn, 2017. 249 pp. $29

Cork, 1923. Father Dominic, a much-loved Capuchin friar, is found dead in the confessional at Holy Trinity Church. Someone has killed him with a weapon thin enough to pass through the grille separating penitent from confessor, and sharp and long enough to penetrate his brain through his listening ear. Reverend Mother Aquinas, who runs a convent school and knows everyone in Cork, grew up friends with Father Dominic and his brother, Lawrence, also in holy orders. Though respectful of Inspector Patrick Cashman, the detective assigned to the case, and aware that solving the murder is his job, the Reverend Mother brings her keen faculties and web of contacts to bear, hoping to aid the overworked inspector.

The first question is whether the late priest had heard too much–and, given how he died, the metaphor is inescapable. But the secrets of the confessional are never divulged, so there was no chance that Father Dominic betrayed a confidence and paid for it. Nevertheless, shortly before his death, he visited an up-and-coming antique shop and saw something there that agitated him. Since he was no collector–couldn’t be, considering his vow of poverty–why he went there raises more questions than it answers. What’s more, the owner of the antique shop, Peter Doyle, has a little explaining to do. Witnesses say they saw him at Holy Trinity at the time of the murder; but he says he wasn’t, and since he’s Protestant, he had no reason to go there.

However, there’s something about him that doesn’t quite square. A theatrical group that he runs, which is preparing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, contains a raft of people who seem to have plenty of money to spend, no matter what their occupation. What connection that has to the murder is anyone’s guess, but suffice to say that every cast member of the Mikado becomes a suspect. But what motive would they have to kill a much-loved priest?

Then again, no one is entirely beloved, and Father Dominic ventured into prisons to give the sacraments to incarcerated IRA soldiers. The agreement made the previous year to grant Ireland independence, minus the six northern counties, has pleased practically nobody, and the violence continues. Accordingly, the priest’s death becomes a political issue, as do the religious affiliations and family lineages of almost every character in the novel.

Auxiliaries and “Black and Tans” fought the IRA and earned the undying enmity of Irish nationalists (courtesy National Library of Ireland via Wikimedia Commons)

I like this aspect of Beyond Absolution. Harrison re-creates the mutual suspicion and prejudice that crops up in or lies beneath the surface of every human transaction. She betrays the loyalties to client, faith, class, or brand of nationalism and how they seep through life and color how people make decisions. You see divisions within the police, the educational system, and the church. Since the dominant ethic seems to be based on tradition, fear, and suspicion, you get the feeling that the sensitive, forward-thinking characters–the Reverend Mother, Inspector Cashman, and a few others–are trying to hold back the ocean. In another nice touch, the Reverend Mother once taught Cashman, so she has a personal stake in wanting him to succeed; likewise, she can recall how several other characters behaved as students of hers.

Gossip is the grease that makes this world go round, and even the telephone calls may not be private, as the Reverend Mother well knows:

There were, she supposed, other countries where the exchange operators took a number in silence and put you through, preserving an air of total anonymity about the process, but here in the city of Cork, that would have been considered discourteous. In Cork, it was assumed that everyone knew everyone else’s business. And the telephone exchange women did their best to add to that common pool of knowledge. Sensible people, keeping this in mind, spent the first minutes exchanging remarks about the weather and the state of the streets before moving on to matters that were more private.

As for the mystery, Harrison tells her story well and keeps you guessing–at least about most things. It’s a little too easy to tell the good guys and bad guys apart–as with Peter Doyle, the characterizations can be one-sided–and the antique-store crowd are a bad lot, which narrows the field quite a bit. You may not guess the killer’s identity, but the motive quickly becomes obvious. Sometimes, Harrison clumsily introduces facts she wants you to know or character background. At those moments, I felt I was being Told Something Important rather than being allowed to discover it naturally.

Still, I appreciate Harrison’s skill at re-creating an era, and I applaud her decision not to try to clean it up. The Troubles were a very violent time, and she gives a glimpse of why.

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

When Memory Plays Tricks: Devastation Road

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Review: Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt
Little, Brown, 2015. 379 pp. $20

In spring 1945, an injured man wakes in a field. He’s got only the vaguest idea of who he is–he’s English, and his name is Owen–but he’s wearing clothes that don’t fit, he can’t remember how he got hurt, why he’s where he is, how he got there, or where there is, except that it must be Europe. To judge from what he sees, it must be Central Europe, but he can’t tell what country.

Marshal Konev leads the Red Army into Prague, May 1945 (courtesy Karel Hájek, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Czech boy, Janek, who speaks barely a word of English, adopts him and claims to have rescued him, but Owen’s not sure of that, and, to some extent, resents how Janek sticks to him like glue. But the boy is useful, scrounging food and keeping a keen eye out for dangers that Owen might otherwise blunder into. Through Janek, Owen also learns that there’s a war on, and he slowly realizes that he’s played a part in it, and what that part is. Eventually, they meet a Polish woman, Irena, who attaches herself to them, though each has a different aim. Owen wants to go home. Janek insists he must find his brother, Petr, a Resistance hero. Irena, whose head has been shaved, says that she just wants to be safe–it’s hard for a Jew, she says–but you get the idea that she wants someone to take care of her, and Owen, as an Englishman, is the obvious choice.

I like the way Hewitt pieces together his narrative, showing how Owen gradually realizes who he is, memories triggered by a button, a phrase on a scrap of paper, a facial expression, or how light looks. As images return to him of his former employment as a draftsman for an aircraft manufacturer; his older brother, Max; their parents; and Max’s fiancée, the reader senses that Owen’s disorientation isn’t just post-traumatic stress. He’s also suppressing certain memories out of guilt.

To weld these disparate fragments into a coherent narrative takes great skill, and nearly all Hewitt’s transitions between past and present meld seamlessly. His descriptions, based on apparently thorough research, effortlessly depict the era and the settings. Further, he conveys Owen’s fluid, ever-varying states of mind with authority:

It was not that he was lost that concerned him most. Nor was it that he had found himself in a war that he remembered so little about, which now seemed to be consuming everything and everyone within it. Nor was it that he had ended up in an obscure country that in the past had been nothing more than a strange name in the news broadcasts, or, even, that somehow he seemed to have wiped several years from his mind. No, what concerned him most was that things he now knew for sure–and knew that he knew–could suddenly be lost again, and then found, and lost once more, as if they had never been there in the first place.

Despite these attributes, rendered in lucidly beautiful prose, Devastation Road presents quite a few obstacles. Chief among them is how irritating all three main characters are. Owen seems too earnest, even clueless, to be a survivor, and it’s hard to believe he was involved in the war, because he lacks the necessary guile or instinct that warriors must possess if they’re to overcome the inevitable setbacks they face. Janek is too much the entitled teenager for my taste, as if he too hasn’t reckoned with or been leveled by the war, even though he grew up in it. He evokes flickers of sympathy, yet the narrative grabs most when he’s not involved. Irena’s truly appalling, selfish as the day is long, and it’s pretty obvious she’s lying about something. What has happened to her is both awful and painful, sure, and even holds the potential for tragedy, but that side feels too mechanical and distant, so that her grasping nature overshadows the rest.

Devastation Road works best, I think, as a study of one man’s psychology, the story of his unfolding, tricky memory. If you can hold onto that, the novel will be worth your time.

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

Breaking the Rules: World, Chase Me down

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Review: World, Chase Me Down, by Andrew Hilleman
Penguin, 2017. 332 pp. $16

Like Pat Crowe, the hero of this brash, rambunctious novel about power and reputation set mostly in Omaha around the turn of the last century, the author breaks a lot of rules and gets away with it. You have to admire that, and World, Chase Me Down is a lot of fun, proof that there’s nothing like a character who does and says what readers can only fantasize about. But it’s not just the audacity to tell off corrupt authorities or rob rich people, as Pat does, which makes him attractive. Bravado and violence wear thin, eventually, no matter what purpose they serve. Rather, despite however many rules of storytelling Hilleman ignores, he burnishes one to a high luster–his protagonist’s feelings for the poor and downtrodden, which earn the reader’s respect and sympathy.

Omaha, Nebraska, as it appeared in 1914 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As the novel opens, Pat reflects on his life in 1939. As most of you must know by now, retrospect is just about my least favorite narrative technique. I’ve always suspected that prologues are the refuge of authors who lack confidence in their readers and themselves, fearing that unless they offer a teaser of future action or tension, no one will sit still for their story. But only a bond with characters can keep me reading; curiosity about the story isn’t enough.

So I’ll say this for Hilleman: His prologue throws down a gauntlet. He’s not interested in teasing anybody; he tells you most of what happens in World, Chase Me Down before it’s three pages old and defies you to put the book aside. But it’s not just his daring, like Pat’s, that draws you in and keeps you turning the pages. It’s that by the second sentence, both Pat and his creator have you in their grasp through a shocking admission. For the past twenty years, Pat says, “I’ve been puzzling my way back to humanity,” but will be remembered, if at all, for perhaps the “foulest of all crimes”–kidnapping a child. That touch of humility, his acknowledgment that he has much to atone for, elevates him above and earns greater sympathy than a garden-variety criminal, trickster, or rebel whose freedom to tweak (or punch) any nose he desires.

That said, it’s no mean feat to tell a story that offers few surprises in plot and still make it work. How does Hilleman pull it off?

First, he’s got a pig-headed protagonist. Pat hears a lot of good advice and ignores nearly all of it, to his terrible cost. He never learns, either, to guard himself against his impulses, but that’s part of his charm as well as his undoing. So you know that trouble will come, but you don’t know how. The “no; and furthermore” gambit is alive and well in these pages. But none of that would work if you didn’t see Pat struggle with himself as much as his circumstances, and Hilleman takes care to show this.

Also, even if Hilleman has revealed early on what happens, you don’t know how Pat will adjust to it until you get there, and the author takes care to show that too. Consider the moment after Pat visits Ed Cudahy, Omaha meat-packing baron and father of the boy Pat intends to kidnap:

It would take an equal or perhaps even greater measure of villainy to expose what I hated most about the villainous world. The children in rags who came pawing at the gigantic carriages parked along the decorated boulevards, and the men inside who tossed out a few coins on the street only to shoo the children away. The stockyarders who worked for half a dollar a day only to have to pay twice that for the same meat they labored over to fill their families’ tables.

I wish I saw Billy Cavanagh, Pat’s friend and partner in crime, as clearly. Billy’s a simple soul–give him a jug of whiskey, and he’s content–and the two men trade hilarious insults, bickering like a married couple. But I don’t understand why the glue between them should be as strong as it is, and Billy doesn’t grab me anywhere close to the way Pat does. Moreover, Pat’s magnanimity doesn’t extend to police who try to apprehend him and who, after all, are only doing their jobs; he wounds or kills them with nary a dash of empathy.

Still, World, Chase Me Down is a wonderful book–and for those who care about such things, Pat Crowe was a real person.

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