Twelve Angry Men: The Luminaries

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Review: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Little, Brown, 2013. 830 pp. $27

It’s 1866, and Walter Moody has endured a trying journey to Hokitika, New Zealand, the last of his troubles being a shipwreck. All he desires, therefore, is a restful hour or two before a warm fire, so he heads to his hotel’s smoking room. But twelve men occupy this space, and Moody soon learns that he’s blundered into a secret meeting. As he finds out only after they’ve carefully vetted him, a prostitute has attempted suicide; a wealthy young man who was with her hours before has inexplicably disappeared; and an enormous fortune has shown up in the home of a noted drunkard.

The number twelve obviously suggests a jury, and aptly so, because they’ve agreed to pool their information regarding these criminal events. It’s their luck — and Moody’s — that he’s had legal training. At first, he’d rather not participate, for he’s come to Hokitika to pan the gold fields. But his regard for truth and his vanity about his powers of observation draw him in, and he concludes that many of the twelve fear implication, whereas others seem united in their hatred of a key suspect and would love to prove his guilt. The dozen include, among others, a brothel keeper, a jailhouse minister, two Chinese miners, a Maori stone carver, a newspaper editor, a druggist, a banker, and a court clerk.

James Ring’s 1870 photograph of Hokitika (courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, via Wikimedia Commons)

I find this premise irresistible, and the way Catton narrates her story, orchestrating how these disparate lives intersect, is nothing less than breathtaking. Some novels strain too hard have two characters from very different walks of life cross paths — Manhattan Beach comes to mind — but a dozen seamless interweavings breaks the bank, not to mention how Catton involves the four or five other characters who weren’t invited to the meeting, yet play key roles. To be sure, Catton has an advantage in that a nineteenth-century gold-rush boomtown attracts a dizzying panoply of adventurers and hopefuls whose greed, pride, lust, prejudices, self-regard, and dreams provide a potentially rich field in which to prospect. But to make the claim pan out takes diligence and skill, and Catton tells her lengthy, intricate tale with sureness and aplomb.

To do so, she’s chosen a distinctly Victorian epic style, which works, for the most part. Consider this passage from Moody’s point of view, when he recalls the storm he passed through at sea:

The storm began as a coppery taste in the back of one’s mouth, a metallic ache that amplified as the clouds darkened and advanced, and when it struck, it was with the flat hand of a senseless fury. The seething deck, the strange whip of light and shadows cast by the sails that snapped and strained about it, the palpable fear of the sailors as they fought to hold the barque on her course — it was the stuff of nightmare, and Moody had the nightmarish sense, as the vessel drew closer and closer to the gold fields, that she had somehow willed the infernal storm upon herself.
Walter Moody was not superstitious, though he derived great enjoyment from the superstitions of others, and he was not easily deceived by impression, though he took great care in designing his own.

Note the long, looping sentences, the heightened senses, and, at the end, the explanation of character. That last feature takes getting used to, and sometimes I winced when I read such passages. (Part of Catton’s goal is to show how pride, self-presentation, and self-interest obscure truth from the observer, a case she makes convincingly.) But to her credit, Catton carries the style all the way through, depicting a mindset plausible in its time and place, without smelling salts, melodrama, or black-and-white, overdetermined characters. If The Luminaries feels Dickensian, it’s in the episodic chapters that you could envision appearing in serial, and in the way they each begin with a summary (“In which So-and-So does such-and-such”). But the dialogue feels natural rather than strained, despite the scarcity of contractions, and if the prose and tone create a romantic feel, there’s plenty of grit and ugliness to go around.

I don’t understand the attempt to graft astrology onto the narrative, nor do I find that interesting. I skipped the astrological charts before each section and their coyly vague explanations, in which each of the twelve men occupies a single house. After all, it’s a long book, and to me, the charts were a mere distraction. Conversely, odd as it sounds for a book this long, the narrative leaves a couple or three loose ends.

Nevertheless, The Luminaries is a fabulous novel, and, for those who care about awards, it won the Booker in 2013.

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

The Old Lie: The Fifth Servant

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Review: The Fifth Servant, by Kenneth Wishnia
Morrow, 2010. 387 pp. $26

On Good Friday, a young girl in Prague is found murdered, her throat cut. Since the year is 1592, suspicion automatically falls on the Jews, and since that evening also marks the start of Passover, why, that settles it. Whoever killed her must have used her blood to bake matzoh. Never mind that by Jewish law, blood is ritually impure, literally untouchable, or that matzoh must be made of flour and water. The infamous blood libel has had a long, sturdy life, and in late sixteenth-century Prague, just about every Christian believes in it implicitly.

In taking this ancient lie as its premise, The Fifth Servant pushes its characters (and the reader) to look closely at bigotry and hatred while also inviting laughter. To explain that, I could say that oppressed people need humor to survive, and that Jewish humor, especially of the ghetto or shtetl variety, is well known. But that’s only half the story. This remarkable novel promises a wild ride even in the front matter, which compares the word shamus, or private detective, with its Yiddish ancestor, shammes, or sexton of a synagogue.

Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a Talmudic scholar newly arrived from Poland, is the shammes in question, the fifth of his calling in a ghetto with four synagogues. This makes him literally a fifth wheel, and he’s easily the squeakiest in town. Benyamin has three days to solve the crime, or the ghetto will pay, probably with its destruction. This doesn’t exactly come as a shock to him.

Holy Week and Eastertide were especially risky, and a gambling man would say that we were long overdue for some old-fashioned Jew-hatred. Every year the Jews got thrown out of somewhere. The lucky ones merely got beaten up, had their property stolen, and escaped with their books and the clothes they happened to be wearing at the time. But one Easter a while back, a mob of enraged Christians had practically burned down the entire Jewish Town, leaving only the black and stone shul and a few crummy houses that refused to fall over. Three thousand people murdered in one weekend, all because some idiot said that a Jewish boy had thrown a handful of mud at a passing priest.

Still, how can Benyamin do anything when Friday evening is not only the first Passover seder but the Sabbath, and he may undertake no labor? Moreover, since the crime took place outside the ghetto, and the authorities have closed the gates to Jewish traffic, how can he possibly gather clues or question witnesses? Finally, how can Benyamin carry out his investigation when several rabbinical authorities oppose him and his rationalist methods? It’s that heretical way of thinking, they believe, that caused the trouble in the first place. If everyone were properly devout, they argue, there’d be no blood libel.

Rabbi Judah Loew’s tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague (courtesy MKPiekarska, via Wikimedia Commons)

But Benyamin has one respected ally, Rabbi Judah Loew, a rationalist himself (and a historical figure, incidentally). Between the two of them, using Talmudic logic and wisdom from the Torah and other texts, they try, little by little, to crack the mystery surrounding the girl’s murder. But the odds are heavily against them, and you won’t be surprised to hear that “no; and furthermore” greets them at every turn — excuse me, neyn; un noch, since Yiddish is the key language, here.

Along the way, Wishnia re-creates sixteenth-century Prague, Jewish life of that era, and a world of intellectual ferment alongside brute superstition. I’ve never read a mystery in which the sleuths are Talmudic scholars, quoting references from sacred writings to support the inferences they draw from observed facts. (For that matter, even the ghetto’s whores are learned enough to enter the debate.) That can be very funny, especially when they have to explain themselves to Christians, who believe that drawing inferences from anything must be an example of Jewish witchcraft. Such humor carries a dangerous edge, of course. But even among his fellow Jews, Benyamin has to overcome suspicion of his origins, scholastic pedigree, and ways of reasoning. For instance, when one skeptic asks, “How come I haven’t heard of you?,” he replies, “Because the angels who sing my praises do it beyond the range of normal hearing.”

At times, Benyamin’s commentary wears thin; a little less archness would have worked a lot better. And the reader unfamiliar with Hebrew or Yiddish may feel at sea, though the text explains the many quotations and expressions. (There’s also a glossary at the back.) But such is the draw of The Fifth Servant that it pulls you into its world and doesn’t let go – for laughs and heartache, both.

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

The Vanity of Masochism: Mrs. Osmond

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Review: Mrs. Osmond, by John Banville
Knopf, 2017. 369 pp. $27

Isabel Osmond (née Archer) has disobeyed her husband, Gilbert, something she’s never done before. Against his will, she’s left their home in Rome to visit her dying cousin in England. After the funeral, friends urge Isabel not to return to Gilbert — a remarkable notion for the 1880s – whose cruelty and deceit have ruined any hope of happiness.

Readers of The Portrait of a Lady, the Henry James masterpiece, will recognize the situation and characters. They will also know that Isabel wouldn’t dream of taking flight from her lawfully wedded husband. But Banville has set his imagination to work, and he finds much meat in what an American-born woman of the Victorian Age would do if she discovered that her vicious husband had married her only for her money.

To pen a sequel to Henry James requires a bold, confident hand and a finely perceptive eye. Only a writer as experienced and gifted as Banville would even attempt it, and he succeeds brilliantly. Not only has he captured the Jamesian style, the discursive loop-the-loop sentences that end dead center in observed truth; like the master, Banville derives intense feeling from a gesture or an inflection of voice. As with the original, what’s left between the lines often means more than what is said. Where modern authors interrupt their narratives to reveal their characters’ inner lives (if they bother), for James, there isn’t anything but inner life. For readers who expect a faster-moving story, his approach may be an acquired taste. But he creates tension through deep emotional connection; so too with Banville and Mrs. Osmond.

Letting her eyes close, Isabel dipped into the dark behind her lids as if into the mossy coolness of a forest pool. Yet she could not linger long, for in that darkness she was sure to meet the padding, yellow-eyed, implacable creature that was her conscience. Strange: she it was who had been wronged, grievously wronged, by her husband, and by a woman whom she considered, if not her ally, then not her enemy either, yet it was she herself who felt the shame of the thing.

But to call this novel imitation James hardly does it justice. Where James expounds on the loss of innocence, a favorite theme, especially regarding Americans residing in Europe, Banville emphasizes Isabel’s masochism, so deep and relished that it amounts to vanity. There are stretches in Mrs. Osmond in which I wanted to hit her over the head, because I detest masochism and dislike literary characters who don’t struggle against it the way I’d want them to. But Isabel’s excessive sense of duty is also painful, since Gilbert Osmond must rank among the most odious husbands in literature. He’d never stoop to physical violence or even profanity, never raises his voice, and would consider it gauche and beneath him to be drunk. Yet he pulverizes everyone around him through fifty shades of disdain, many of which require no words.

Consequently, Isabel’s physical journey from London back to Rome takes second place to her inner travels. She believes she must confront Gilbert, a task that requires steeling herself and gathering information, but while she’s doing that, she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants and deserves. Naturally, she goes back and forth, because when you have spent your life as a doormat, even the experience of being cheated and lied to in the worst possible way doesn’t necessarily qualify you to stand up for yourself. Nevertheless, when Gilbert and she finally do meet, it doesn’t go as either of them expects.

I’m not the type to read modern takes on Jane Austen or Conan Doyle, but I made an exception with Mrs. Osmond and am glad I did. We’ve all known someone like Isabel, and it makes no difference that this version of her comes from the nineteenth century. You need not have read The Portrait of a Lady to enjoy it– Banville seems to assume no knowledge of it—but I appreciated the sequel more for having done so.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, which published this post in shorter, different form.

Sins of the Father: Enchantress of Numbers

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Review: Enchantress of Numbers, by Jennifer Chiaverini
Dutton, 2017. 433 pp. $27

He’s magnetic as few people are, well titled, brilliant, a poetic genius, utterly debauched, and what would today be called manic-depressive. Her parents try to warn her, but Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, Baroness of Wentworth, will have her Lord Byron, believing that ardent love and a spotless moral example will cure him of his excesses. It’s 1815, the year of Waterloo, and a different sort of battle is about to begin.

Annabella’s delusion receives a sharp setback on her wedding day, and though the Byrons pass a few companionable weeks, during which Annabella becomes pregnant, their marriage quickly falls apart. Lord Byron prefers other women, especially his half-sister, Augusta, and only someone as innocent as Annabella could have failed to realize how deep that preference runs. By the time Annabella’s daughter is born, and he insists on naming her Augusta, as is his legal right, his long-suffering wife begins to get the idea. Shortly afterward, Annabella leaves Byron, a scandal so infamous the separation is forever referred to with a capital S. Henceforth, she calls her daughter only by her middle name, Ada, and sets out to eradicate any presence of her former husband, real or perceived. She decides that an overwrought imagination led to Byron’s depravity, and she watches her young child for that or any other evidence of “evil Byron blood.” Whenever Ada shows the least sign of willfulness, subversion, or curiosity deemed repugnant, Annabella leaves home, putting Ada in the hands of hirelings who enjoy correcting her every fault, many of which exist only in their eyes, and determined that no fairytales, flights of fancy, or moments spent ruminating ever be part of this young girl’s life.

I confess I have a visceral reaction to this novel, which could be subtitled How to Destroy a Child. I wanted to rescue this poor girl from parental tyranny and show her kindness, warmth, and encouragement. However, the stakes are even higher than that of an emotionally strangled child, for Ada is preternaturally intelligent, passionate about science, and a born mathematician. Luckily, Annabella tolerates this to some extent, or the world would have lost a genius. Known to history as Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s only legitimate child has been credited by some historians as having devised the first computer algorithm, in a journal article discussing the work of her close friend, Charles Babbage. But, as Chiaverini tells it, all this could have easily gone another way.

How this comes to be shapes the narrative, but Enchantress of Numbers is much more than a biographical novel, a genre that too often shows its limitations. Chiaverini succeeds brilliantly, in part because each chapter has its “no — and furthermore” and portrays Ada’s struggles lucidly. She longs to make her own decisions, and, as she gets older, to gain recognition for her science, not as an ornament to her father’s misbegotten reputation. Even better, Chiaverini carries these conflicts through Ada’s adulthood, and they never recede. Her mother remains withholding, elusive, and controlling; and men are men, with rights and privileges Ada can never claim. Moreover, though Ada counts among her friends such luminaries as Darwin, Dickens, Faraday, and Mary Somerville (Ada’s mentor, a brilliant polymath for whom a college at Oxford is now named), most scientists dismiss her work as dabbling, simply because she’s a woman. No doubt Countess Lovelace would have understood implicitly the endemic sexism in today’s Silicon Valley and have much to say about it.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess Lovelace, 1840 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, via Science and Society Picture Library)

But feminism aside, Enchantress of Numbers is also about a corrosive mother-daughter relationship and the rivalries that Annabella exploits for her own advantage. No question that Byron abused her, and since his subsequent poems satirize her mercilessly, she continues to suffer. But she passes on the punishment with interest, constricting Ada within an inch of her life while not letting her read the poems, so that the girl’s only knowledge of her father comes from her mother’s harangues. Even his family portrait is hidden in her grandparents’ house:

Whenever I was feeling especially brave, I would steal into the room alone and gaze up at the covered portrait, wondering what lay behind the dark green curtain. What did my father look like? Of course I did not remember . . . . There must be something truly terrible about his appearance or my grandmother would not have hidden him from view. . . . In my imagination — that wicked, persistent faculty — he became a chimera of the magnificent and the monstrous. . . . and . . . Since I was his child, something sinister and dangerous lurked within me too.

I wish that Chiaverini had devoted more space to Ada’s emotional reckonings late in her short life, though I understand why the author didn’t go that way. Enchantress of Numbers is lengthy as it is. But it’s utterly riveting as well as topical, and I highly recommend it.

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

Blood Money: Savage Country

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Review: Savage Country, by Robert Olmstead
Algonquin, 2017. 293 pp. $27

It’s rural Kansas, 1873, and many farmers have gone bust, whether from overextended investment, rapacious creditors, or the swarms of locusts that have wreaked destruction of biblical proportions. Elizabeth Coughlin, recently widowed and deeply in debt, decides to try to recoup her fortunes by assembling a buffalo hunting expedition. Properly cured buffalo hides are worth a fortune, prized as leather for factory drive belts or other applications requiring particular strength or resiliency. And to lead her expedition, Elizabeth asks her brother-in-law Michael, newly arrived from his latest journeys as a big-game hunter. Against his better judgment, Michael agrees — and no sooner has he said yes than the party gathers and prepares to head south. Michael, it seems, would rather do just about anything than talk, and when he’s around, life-changing decisions happen in a New York minute.

Digitally retouched photograph dating from the mid-1870s of a pile of bison skulls, to be ground into fertilizer (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

But he anticipates the dangers that lie ahead. As they cross the so-called dead line separating Kansas from Comanche territory, Michael finds the remains of a couple wagons whose murdered and scalped occupants make a grisly display. You know right away that Elizabeth’s quest will be a struggle to the death, but, as it happens, the Comanches aren’t the main antagonists. When it comes to raiders, white brigands are the worst; and if something burns, bites, floods, or falls from the sky, the Coughlin crew will have their fill of it. But what’s in the human heart causes even more misery, for it’s the pursuit of wealth, especially wealth that comes through killing, which destroys the spirit as well as the body.

Savage Country shows this in its vivid, gruesome descriptions of the buffalo hunt in its appalling carnage, and the inevitable rivalries and prejudices that divide the expedition. For instance, when a group of sick, starving black escapees arrives from a turpentine plantation — a form of industrial slavery — Elizabeth hires them to skin hides as a kind of rescue. But you sense that violence will erupt sooner or later, because not all her employees share her outlook.

It’s violence that shapes Savage Country, and I say that even as I recall other unflinching novels about the West, such as The News of the World or The Way West, which involve their share of brutality. Olmstead’s tale will deter some, but I, who consider myself squeamish, didn’t recoil. Maybe it’s because the violence establishes its own context, and that the characters, Michael and Elizabeth especially, try to make sense of it. And Michael has seen it before:

Michael listened to what the reverend doctor had to say until his mind began to wander. He held no anticipation of punishment or reward after death. He experienced no terror of the underworld, of the afterlife. He had no dread of suffering upon perishing. He believed in the transition of souls into horses and in the second sight of dogs and their ability to see invisible spirits and witches. He believed in omens and dreams and warnings and instinct. He believed, contrary to the Gospels, the meek, however blessed, would not inherit the earth.

But Michael, the rock of the narrative, resembles that substance in his refusal to express anything, which grates after a while. His deliberate terseness sometimes comes across as harsh and unyielding as the weather. The narrative succeeds best, I think, in its vivid descriptions of life and death on the prairie, which are as tense and dramatic as could be. But when it comes to human speech, the characters — even those who show more of themselves — don’t speak as much as they declare, as if they were coining homespun aphorisms, or trying to. I don’t believe that late-nineteenth-century frontier folk avoided contractions like the plague or snarled their syntax to avoid saying an extra word. Here, their language can be so stilted as to sound pretentious, and these people are anything but.

Still, I found the novel worth reading, both for its depictions of nature and the way it dramatizes its central themes. As Elizabeth observes, “For all the slave lords the war had killed, a new generation was born in their ashes and born inside of the new generation was the enmity of the old.”

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

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.