Tormented Souls: The White Feather Killer

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Review: The White Feather Killer, by R. N. Morris
Severn, 2019. 284 pp. $29

Like many young men in London in summer 1914, Felix Simpkins feels the tug to serve king and country by enlisting in the crusade against the Germans. It would be the only individual act Felix can think of, the sole rebellious gesture against his emasculating mother (and typically self-defeating), but he can’t quite bring himself to, which flattens his self-esteem even further and risks public shame. For in these mad days when the populace has become intoxicated by jingoism and xenophobia, women of patriotic temperament press white feathers, a sign of cowardice, into the hands of physically fit men not in uniform.

Edgar J. Kealey’s 1915 recruiting poster contrasts the feminine softness within the window and the hard masculinity outside–and manipulates men and women both (courtesy British Library)

Meanwhile, Detective Chief Inspector Silas Quinn of Scotland Yard feels unsettled too, for other reasons. He’s just returned from psychological sick leave, which has further damaged his reputation among police officers of all ranks, many of whom resent him for his brilliance as a detective, his independent methods, and his insistence on truth rather than convenience. Apparently, the resentment goes right to the top, for Quinn has been relieved from command of a special crimes unit and been relegated to a pen-pushing job in which no one need pay attention to him, except to note his lapses.

Military security now requires keen focus on enemies within. Guilt no longer matters. If a crime takes place, arrest someone of German lineage, connections, or alleged sympathies. Justice will be served, and the public, placated. Naturally, this directive rubs Quinn the wrong way. And when he hears that a minister’s daughter has been killed shortly after a patriotic meeting at her father’s church — at which women collected white feathers to hand out — he itches to solve the case. But he’s forbidden to; and the men who’ve supplanted him are watching, waiting for him to step out of line.

Morris excels at characterization, historical atmosphere, the requisite “no — and furthermore,” and the craft of whodunit, with which he keeps you guessing until the end. So many scenes in his novel start out one way and shoot off unexpectedly in another, the essence of tension, because something touches a nerve in his legion of fragile people. Some readers may find these tortured souls off-putting, and I admit, the near-universal willingness to abuse others creates a bleak mood. But the rewards here are many, not least an unvarnished portrayal of police work in 1914, and a similar depiction of a great metropolis straining at its bounds. The famous English credo of decency and fair play seldom applies; that’s an ideal, existing mostly in Quinn’s mind and nowhere else. But with one notable exception, Morris lets his flawed people strive for connection, which shows their fullness and lets you feel for them.

Exhibit A here is Quinn, who’s difficult in his way, though not cruel. He’d like to unburden himself if he could, and his impulses are decent and generous, but he can’t always express them. A psychologically minded detective among colleagues for whom perception and deduction are blunt instruments, he comes across to them as cocksure, even arrogant, yet inside, he’s anything but. Whether it’s his halting overtures to a pretty police secretary or his reluctance to return to the house of a former landlady who realizes he needs care, Quinn makes an unusual male detective, vulnerable and cerebral at once.

The White Feather Killer also conveys London in war fever, whether it’s spy mania or naked anxiety about the adventure that has just begun:

The world had suddenly become a dangerous and uncertain place. A drastic shift in perspective had brought Death into the foreground; the dim figure on the horizon, drifting in and out of sight, had become an insistent, looming presence, so close its stinking, clammy breath could be felt on the back of the neck. Sons and brothers, husbands and fathers, in answering the call to the colours, had brought this dark stranger into the family.

Morris allows himself deeper, more rounded descriptions and motivations than many mystery writers, yet you never feel disconnected or impatient with the narrative. Quite the contrary; I wish more mystery writers trusted themselves (and their readers) to write like this. My only complaint centers on Coddington, Quinn’s nemesis within the police; he’s the notable exception to the generosity granted the other characters. The psychological portrait remains blurry, so I don’t know much about Coddington, except that he’s unreasonably jealous and pigheaded.

The White Feather Killer delivers a terrific story with fully realized characters and an authentic historical background, depicted with precise care. Bravo.

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

Who Are We, and Where Do We Come From?: The Great Unknown

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Review: The Great Unknown, by Peg Kingman
Norton, 2020. 324 pp. $27

In 1845, Constantia MacAdam, just delivered of twins (one of whom died), serves as wet nurse to the large, ever-growing Chambers family, temporarily residing outside Edinburgh while their city home undergoes renovation. Constantia, unable to be with her beloved husband, makes the best of her grief over her lost son and her struggle to make ends meet, but she has lucked out. Not only has she landed among the kindest people in Scotland, who treat her like a family member rather than a servant, she’s never found such intellectual stimulation in her life, and she thrives on it.

Mr. Chambers, a newspaper publisher, takes a keen interest in the natural world and urges his immense brood to do likewise, even (if not especially) the girls. He impresses Constantia, who also loves natural science, because of the breadth of his knowledge and the liberality of his mind. A sensational book has appeared, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and its unorthodox views receive a warm welcome in the Chambers household. The reader will guess that Vestiges anticipates Darwin’s influential book almost fifteen years later.

Figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith, depicted here at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, were part of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, often presumed to be an eighteenth-century phenomenon. But their nineteenth-century counterparts included such scientific and cultural luminaries as Thomas Carlyle, Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, and James Clerk Maxwell (courtesy Kim Traynor, via Wikimedia Commons)

While this is happening, the Chambers’ gardener, who has been at this residence all his life, has derived similar revolutionary ideas from observing the randomness of life and death, thriving and deformity, among his beloved plants. And on a Scottish island reasonably near in mileage yet isolated and hard to reach by even the fastest transport, a quarryman seeks to split apart a limestone ledge, in which, he believes, important fossils lie.

To say, therefore, that The Great Unknown is a philosophical novel about the origins of life restates the obvious. The story, at first glance, may seem thin. Constantia longs to rejoin her husband. She also strives to learn who her father was, which the Chambers family, being the soul of tact, infer is a troublesome matter, a secret best left unprobed. Her good character is plain; what more need anyone know?

That doesn’t satisfy Lady Janet, a distant relative of theirs who possesses neither tact nor sensitivity, though she does express much righteous superiority. (When Constantia finally gets the courage to talk back to Lady Janet, it’s delicious.) Lady Janet is the foil for the good-hearted spirit of inquiry that reigns chez Chambers, and a reminder of how different they are from most Britons.

But there’s much more besides the evocation of a country on the brink of a moral upending through scientific discovery, or the excellent, personal portrayal of the conflict between religion and science. We have a thought-provoking daily drama playing out chance and consequences, fortunate or tragic, and people trying to figure out whether these outcomes mean anything or merely display the benign indifference of the universe. (Note the name Constantia in this regard.) Add to that what makes a person human, and how we differ (or don’t) from other species; or is it just our vanity that we do?

In sentences that have a Victorian ring, Kingman has crafted a plot that often turns on Dickensian coincidences, perhaps too fortuitously, at times. But she’s also created a family as a perfect test case for her themes, and not just because of their scientific curiosity. The male species of Chambers are born with a sixth finger on each hand and a sixth toe on each foot. Random chance, indeed, as with the success of surgeries necessary for these digits’ removal. As for Mr. Chambers, imagine a Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice as a witty, urbane man of science who’s more immediately concerned with his daughters’ grasp of Linnaean nomenclature than how to attract a husband—though, rest assured, they have dancing and music lessons too.

Further, when anyone in the household has a musical idea that grabs them at any time, they are encouraged to try it out immediately:

It was understood by all that musical ideas were so fragile, so evanescent, and so precious that they were to be snatched from the thin air upon the very moment of their wafting into existence; they might otherwise as evaporate as quickly as they had precipitated, never again to be recovered. No chances could be taken with them; it was a duty to bring them into the world. Constantia became accustomed to seeing an inward distracted stillness fall over the faces of the girls; any of them might, even in the midst of nursery-supper noise, fall silent for a moment; then spring from her chair, to run to the pianoforte—the harp—the violin.

Not everyone will gravitate toward a quiet, reflective story like this, a daguerreotype of the moment when brave thinkers began to ask the most earthshaking questions without fear of divine retribution. But readers who take The Great Unknown for what it is will be greatly rewarded.

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

Looking for Meaning: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

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Review: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, by P. S. Duffy
Liveright, 2013. 366 pp. $26

There’s no real reason for Angus MacGrath, a Nova Scotia coastal shipping captain, to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Canada has no conscription; Angus, a onetime seminarian, has a wife and teenage boy; he’s an artist, so the natural beauty of his home matters to him; and there’s no pressure to join up. In fact, his father, Duncan, is a pacifist, so Angus should be primed to sit out the war.

Yet Angus’s brother-in-law, his closest friend, has been missing in action in France, and Angus wishes to search for him. An officer Angus knows assures him that his mapmaking skills will secure him a desk job in London, from which he figures to make inquiries. Nobody’s happy. Duncan’s furious, and Hettie Ellen, Angus’s withdrawn wife, gives merely tacit approval, hardly a rousing endorsement. Their son, Simon, who craves closeness from his father, tries to keep a stiff upper lip.

Turns out there’s no room in the cartography department—who could have guessed?—and Angus is made a lieutenant of infantry, a job for which he’s unprepared. However, to his surprise, he becomes a capable field leader, befriends his brother officers despite his natural aloofness, and gains the respect of his men. Gradually, his search for his brother-in-law takes on epic proportions.

Richard Jack’s painting, ca. 1918, The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917, suggests a stylized version of a nineteenth-century battlefield, too clean and romantic to represent war accurately in any era (courtesy Canadian War Museum via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States and Canada)

Meanwhile, back in Nova Scotia, Simon tries to assert his independence, especially from his tyrannical grandfather, Duncan. Simon keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles on the war and casts his father as a hero. He also befriends his favorite teacher, a German-born polymath, testament to the tolerance he’s learned at home and his ability to think for himself. Ominously, Simon’s friends and neighbors show neither quality.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a lovely novel, the more remarkable for being Duffy’s first; and as a historian of the First World War and its fiction, I can attest to its authenticity. Duffy has researched her ground meticulously, but, as I’ve said before, spending years in libraries and archives doesn’t guarantee a gripping narrative. Still, I defy anyone to find a dull, wasted page in this extraordinary tale. And much as I salute the author’s impressive grasp of detail, it’s how she deploys her knowledge that counts. Moreover, her seductive prose takes you by the hand and shows you what she wants you to see, as in this scene at a French estaminet:

Sweat, damp wool and liquor suffused the air as talk turned to the wonder of nurses, spotted that morning in their blue capes, managing to look wholesome, healthy and entirely unapproachable. Having stayed far longer than he’d intended, Angus headed for the latrine. Jostled in line, he thought back to the upper room in London — a sanctuary of measures, grids, coordinates and intersecting lines of longitude and latitude — where the cartographers he’d hoped to join bent over their stereoscopes, transforming aerial photographs into maps. There was something elemental and pristine about it, the careful, dispassionate execution, that called up the calming effect of drawing his birds — a tamping down of emotions too deeply felt. Sorry as he’d been not to join them, he was glad now not to have been part of their remote, sterile world.

Duffy effortlessly captures the camaraderie of men at war, the search for meaning amid the violence, the tension and release of battle. Even readers who shy away from such stories may find much to keep them glued to this one. For those interested, Duffy has re-created the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Arras, a source of such national pride in Canada that she feared to tackle it, she writes. However, her authorial bravery pays off, and the novel must rank among the best from recent years about the First World War.

Oddly, though, her home-front narrative feels somewhat less compelling. It belongs, because Duffy links the parallel journeys of father and son, as each strives to understand who he is. But Duffy’s soldiers steal the show, hands down. Hettie Ellen’s inner life never comes through (perhaps Angus might agree), and none of the women leave an echo behind them, except one in a cameo role. They’re not stick figures, by any means, just less full than the fighters. The home-front men do better than the women, but few have much scope, and though the Canada story has its moments, it doesn’t reach as high.

Nevertheless, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a very fine novel and an excellent addition to First World War literature.

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

Anthems for Doomed Youth: The First World War in Fiction

Imagine a time and place when the dominant popular belief supposed that truth, beauty, justice, and progress not only existed but seemed within permanent grasp. National leaders deserved confidence until proven otherwise. Science, which had discovered how to cure centuries-old scourges, held unbridled promise. Technology had invented everything from electronic communications to engine-driven land transport to the zipper and the safety razor, and would continue to improve daily life and make drudgery a thing of the past. International cooperation in all these efforts, as well as in finance, commerce, the arts, and philosophy, would bring about unheard-of amity.

This was Western Europe in 1914, and the war beginning that year would crush this optimism forever. The transformation shook every conceivable facet of life and, I believe, altered twentieth-century history like no other event.

Wilfred Owen, one of my favorite poets, was killed a week before the armistice. This photograph illustrated a posthumous collection of his poems in 1920 (courtesy https://archive.org/details/poemsowenwil00owenrich, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Today, in honor of Armistice Day (this Wednesday), I’ll devote this week’s column to my favorite fiction about the war, most of which I’ve reviewed or soon will. All feel authentic to me in their re-creation of mood and attitudes, language and thought, historical accuracy, and, as strong fiction must, offer protagonists with flaws, villains with virtues or at least depth, and subtle exposition of themes and background information. My choices are character-driven, though not all would qualify as literary. For fans of All Quiet on the Western Front and its kind, fear not; I’ll devote a separate section to fiction contemporary to the war.

The first book reviewed on this blog, The Lie, has all I look for and more. The late Helen Dunmore paints an exquisite story of a veteran returning to Cornwall in 1920, worried (with reason) he’ll be homeless, a metaphor for his struggle to find a place in the world and one within himself. Beautiful and painful, and though it’s not for the faint of heart, we’re talking about emotional suffering, not blood or violence.

Regeneration, by Pat Barker, the first of a trilogy, is the gold standard for many, a compelling tale of a real-life British Army psychiatrist, who treats Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others. (While under treatment, Owen drafts the poem that inspired the title of this column.) But literature’s not the point here: Nearly all the doctor’s patients (and superiors) assume that “shell shock” can only mean weakness — and therein hangs a tale.

A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry, tells the story of a young Irish soldier betrayed by circumstance and his own trusting nature. Known for his angelic singing voice, he lifts his melodies over no man’s land, so that music haunts the narrative. The Easter Rebellion and the burden of Irish history also play a key role in this compelling, memorable novel.

The Heroes’ Welcome, by Louisa Young, takes two intertwined survivors’ stories and follows them past the war’s end. One’s damaged emotionally and can’t love his wife, who becomes disturbed in her own way; the other vet’s had drastic facial reconstructive surgery, yet finds greater happiness than he — or anyone — expected for him. A brave book that confronts human failings head-on.

The Poppy Wife, by Caroline Scott, involves the search for a missing soldier, presumed dead by all save his wife and his brother, who has loved his sister-in-law for years. An elegant premise deftly developed, and unusual among First World War novels, in which a woman is neither nurse nor bandage-roller nor keeps the home fires burning.

Recently reviewed here, The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate, delivers a classic rendering— a 1913 hunting party on an Oxfordshire estate, a metaphor for the slaughter to come. All’s on display, with remarkable economy and punch: characters, attitudes, the world of caste, deference, and ways that would soon cease to exist.

Andrea Molesini’s characters, larger than life yet plausible, show force, ingenuity, weakness, strength, and mordant wit, reacting to the Austrian occupation of their home north of Venice in 1917. That’s Not All Bastards Are from Vienna, storytelling at its finest, about how to live when death rides high, and with a vigor seldom seen during wartime.

P. S. Duffy effortlessly captures the camaraderie of men at war, the search for meaning amid the violence, and the tension and release of battle among the Canadian Expeditionary Force in The Cartographer of No Man’s Land (to be reviewed here soon). Her home-front storyline, back in Nova Scotia, seems less powerful, but parallel journeys of a father and son link the two convincingly.

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, tells a singular story about a successful medical student who’s thrust into a military hospital, where he’s immediately over his head. He has to relearn everything, from a nurse, which runs contrary to the system that instructed (and restrained) him. Despite a strenuous section of back story and an ending I find dubious, Mason knows how to write character, and his prose will stay with you.

Mystery fans need look no further than The White Feather Killer, by R. N. Morris (soon to be reviewed here as well). Morris excels at characterization, historical atmosphere—London hysteria at the war’s outbreak—and whodunit. Some readers may find his tortured souls off-putting, and the near-universal willingness to abuse others creates a bleak mood. But the rewards here beyond a superb mystery are many, not least an unvarnished portrayal of police work in 1914, and a similar depiction of a great metropolis straining at its bounds.

In The Redeemed, Tim Pears returns to England’s West Country for his last volume of a trilogy, to relate how the war affects his two protagonists, a lord’s daughter and a former servant on her father’s estate. The discursive narrative doesn’t hold together as well as its predecessor, but Pears’s prose creates a physical world as few authors can, and the class and social attitudes leap off the page with authenticity. The romance wins too.

Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road provides a glimpse of the Native contribution to Canada’s war, a subject unfamiliar to me, and perhaps to most readers. As a trench novel, it’s terrific, showing how, over time, incessant killing destroys good men from within. Unfortunately, the backstory, narrated by the protagonist’s aunt, often feels shoehorned in.

Clare Clark portrays minor Hampshire aristocracy who keep the twentieth century at bay in We That Are Left. It’s rare that a book full of disagreeable characters can be riveting, especially at 450 pages, and Clark’s people feel entirely, satisfyingly grounded in the time, which tells you all you need to know about Britain’s social conflicts. A needless prologue and an implausible, even Dickensian, ending mar the total effect, but the book is still worth reading.

The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally’s narrative about two Australian sisters who become nurses, captures the violence and fear in an unflinching, unpredictable way, while keeping their sibling rivalry front and center. If it weren’t for the author’s habit of telling rather than showing, and the provincial attitude that all British officers are stupid incompetents, while Aussies just do things better, I’d recommend the novel more highly.

August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s portrayal of the war’s disastrous beginning for Russia, provides the sweep you’d expect and issues that you know will eventually consume the empire from within. It’s been years since I read the novel, but it’s stayed with me, including a negative, how pat the author’s conclusions feel, especially the historical ones. Nevertheless, the Russian perspective seldom reaches print in translation, so it’s worth your time.

Now, onto the contemporaries. Beyond All Quiet (1929), and also from the German point of view, consider Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan), whose keen psychological insight shapes six First World War novels, one of which I read decades ago, Education Before Verdun (1936). And if you haven’t tackled the 900-page Magic Mountain (1927), Thomas Mann’s masterpiece about Europeans seeking treatment at a sanitarium, a metaphor for a society bent on destroying itself, dip into it.

Q: What do these three authors have in common, aside from their nationality? A: The Nazis burned their books.

As for Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932) shows the decline and fall of an Austrian family just before the war, and the stultifying existence they led. The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-23) is Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished satire about a middle-aged simpleton eager to serve in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and the scrapes he gets into.

Moving over to the Allies, I recommend Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear (1930), my only French entry. With an unsparing eye and steady hand, the author tears the heroic mantle off the army, re-creating the war as an exercise in survival, getting by, and suffering, whose depths and absurdity the home front never hears about.

On the British side, for a similar clear-eyed, even savage, portrayal, try Death of a Hero (1929), Richard Aldington’s scathing attack on the Victorian belief system on which he blames the war. In bitter, often darkly funny fashion, he ascribes the conflict to sexual attitudes—an arresting analysis. Less overtly biting, yet as honest and straightforward an account of the trenches as you’ll ever find, The Middle Parts of Fortune (1929), by Fredric Manning, captures the spirit, feelings, and language of the common soldier. Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916), H. G. Wells’s novel about a civilian who copes with the demanded sacrifices, provides a window on the time and sets out the author’s religious philosophy.

Many American authors known chiefly for other themes or subjects wrote about the war, including Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, and Willa Cather, with largely forgettable results. When I was seventeen, A Farewell to Arms (1929), knocked me over, but I doubt Ernest Hemingway’s popular romance would stir me today, given what I’ve learned since about women, Hemingway, and the war (in no particular order). His one-time friend, John Dos Passos, gives Three Soldiers (1919) an early version of the electric passion found in his celebrated trilogy, U.S.A., and a similar theme, alienation.

That’s my current take on First World War fiction. But there are new entries all the time, and I’m always on the lookout.

Drinka Pinta Deatha Day: Murder by Milk Bottle

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Review: Murder by Milk bottle, by Lynne Truss
Bloomsbury, 2020. 320 pp. $27

The summer of 1957 has witnessed plenty of deadly violence in Brighton, England, and Constable Twitten longs for a respite. But he’s not going to get one. Three more victims soon bite the dust in rapid fashion, sending this seaside resort town into a tizzy over the August Bank Holiday weekend. What’s more, all three met their end courtesy of milk-bottle shards. This is a rather unfortunate coincidence, since the Milk Girl, a lovely young woman hired by the dairy industry, will be making a publicity appearance, opening a milk bar. Or is it a coincidence?

Consider to the influence of an ice cream competition, judged by the local police inspector, Steine. Don’t forget the beauty contest, widely believed to be rigged, or the barber competition, which has a similar reputation. For good measure, we have a stampede of docile milk cows, a girls’ school with a troubled past, and Mrs. Groynes, char lady at the police station, whose real profession is running organized crime in Brighton.

Incidentally, she’s the only organized person in the station, for the police are utterly incompetent. Constable Twitten, though he sees much, as his first name, Peregrine, would suggest, makes a hash of interpreting it, as his last name implies. He’s perennially blind to the attractive young women who keep falling in love with him, the anti-James Bond. He also has a gift for saying the wrong thing at precisely the wrong moment, so these women may be better off without him. More educated than either Sergeant Brunswick or Inspector Steine, he correctly assumes he’s got more on the ball. But he can seldom convince them of anything, and his manners don’t help. Mrs. Groynes mentors him, when it suits her purposes, fully aware that no matter what Twitten says, he’ll remain the only copper in Brighton who knows she’s a criminal.

As I hope you’ve gathered by now, Murder by Milk Bottle is a riot. I’ve never laughed so often at a mystery, one that recalls British film comedies from the 1960s about blundering police, criminals, or both. (See, for example, The Wrong Arm of the Law, released in 1963, in which Peter Sellers plays a mobster named Pearly Gates.) But Truss has her own style, often witty, very often madcap, never taking itself too seriously. The plot churns merrily, with wry twists and clever turnabouts. You know that the bunglers will bungle, yet will somehow triumph in the end; you just don’t know how. The mystery narration itself is so clever that you’ll keep guessing (wrongly) until the end. And will the characters learn anything? I doubt it.

Truss’s prose is a treat, full of commentary, as with this passage about a dispatcher for roadside assistance:

Mr. Hollibon was an ardent smoker with all the hallmarks of a man who has inhaled warmed-up toxins continuously for more than thirty years. The puckered skin, deep-stained fingers, disgusting cough: he flaunted them all with pride. An army doctor had once asked if his cough was ‘productive,’ and he had replied, truthfully, ‘Yes, very.’ Leaning forward now, he alternately coughed and struggled for breath until (yes!) A veritable torrent of expectoration was produced. And then, pleased with himself, he lit a fresh fag to celebrate.

But there’s also plenty of wordplay. My favorite is the Cockney rhyming slang, in which the phrase “best whistle” refers to whistle and flute, meaning suit; or “boat,” short for boat race, meaning face. But there’s also Twitten’s predilection for psych talk, which is ridiculously funny, and the name of the girls’ school, Lady Laura Laridae (Laridae is the class of sea birds that includes gulls). And finally I’ll cite the author’s play on the famous advertising phrase of the dairy industry, Drinka Pinta Milka Day, which a waggish Brighton newspaper publisher, considering all the mayhem, turns into Drinka Pinta Deatha Day.

None of this surprises me, given Truss’s fame for Eats, Shoots & Leaves, her plea against the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue, as Professor Higgins put it in My Fair Lady. But I tell you, if she wishes to write a mystery revolving around death by comma (Oxford or inverted), I’m down for that.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review.

Sixth Census: Another Blog Birthday

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Today, Novelhistorian is six years old, and as I do every anniversary, I recap my dozen or so favorites from the past twelve months.

Start with Dominicana, by Angie Cruz, which brings you to a time and place seldom seen in mainstream historical fiction, an upper Manhattan barrio in 1965. A child-bride essentially sold off by a scheming mother as the family’s ticket out of Dominican Republic must cope with a strange, hostile city; a tight-fisted, abusive husband; and the knowledge that the country in which she now lives is abusing her homeland too. She’s a compelling heroine of a heart-rending story, but it’s her toughness and ingenuity that raise this immigrant’s narrative several notches.

Isabella Hammad, in The Parisian, tells of a young medical student from Palestine who travels to France for his education in 1914 (and to escape conscription by the Ottoman authorities). Abroad, he loses himself in freedoms he never dreamed of, and his return to Palestine causes shock waves within him, echoing the nationalist politics in which he’s involved. Both he and his country are looking for liberation, but neither knows how to go about it. Hammad tells her story in a florid, languorous style reminiscent of Flaubert and Stendhal in its fixation on small moments and one person’s biography as a window on a time and place. The book nearly founders in its first 150 pages, but stay with it, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

Robert Harris never stops dreaming up new ways to recount history through fiction, and A Second Sleep is no exception. Genre-bending, yet steeped in his bold narrative approach, in spare yet evocative prose, this thriller brings you to what seems like fifteenth-century England. But the struggle between free thought and religious teaching, human frailty and temptation will work in any time period—and if I sound vague, it’s deliberate, because this novel works best if you let it creep up on you, with little foreknowledge. The pages exhale history like a subtle, authoritative scent; prepare to be intoxicated.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free takes place in 1809, and Andrew Miller’s thriller differs from the ordinary too, but in an unusual way: It’s delicate. Few books in this genre indulge in lush, patient description, yet these pages turn quickly, thanks to Miller’s active prose, brilliant storytelling, and ingenious concept, a manhunt for a man who’s also searching for himself. Inner life matters here, for heroes and villains both, a refreshing change, when cardboard bad guys abound in fiction. The romance between a traumatized soldier with blood on his conscience and a freethinking woman who sees through him but is losing her eyesight will make you marvel, not least because the reader perceives them more clearly than they do one another.

For a different mood entirely, I propose This Is Happiness, by Niall Williams, a love song to the rural Ireland of 1957. The narrative hinges, among other things, on chronic rain stopping for no apparent reason, the arrival of electricity, the character of the new priest in town, and the power of storytelling, all seen through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old who’s just quit the seminary. Warmth, humor, and melodic prose turn a long series of small events into a large story. I almost put this book down several times but always went back—it will seduce you, if you let it. As the narrator observes, “Sometimes the truth can only be reached by exaggeration,” and everyone in town has their own approach to it. Worth the price of admission: a description of a first love, hilarious and painful, practically on a physiological level.

When it comes to First World War fiction, I’m a stickler for accuracy, whether we’re talking about events, attitudes, or characters true to their time. Come the week of Armistice Day, I’ll be writing a column on my all-time faves, but for now, consider The Poppy Wife, by Caroline Scott. She gets everything right, partly a function of her PhD in history but also how she treats that discipline as a living, breathing entity. She offers a superb premise, in which a woman sets out in 1921 to search for a husband presumed dead in battle but never found. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, who served alongside the missing man, tries not to reveal that he loves her, just as he tried not to let his brother know. Not an ounce of sentimentality taints this narrative, which deploys power and psychological complexity, showing how survivors can be lost as well as the dead, and how perception and memory can twist even what we’re sure of.

Mariah Fredericks captures the upper-crust social world of 1912 New York (and the gritty life of the less fortunate) in Death of a New American. A lady’s maid, enraged by the senseless murder of an Italian immigrant nanny, whose only fault was to love the children she tended, sets her sights on justice. The sleuth’s quest naturally puts her at odds with the posh family she works for, one of the Four Hundred. However, she’s clever and indefatigable, and she’s seen too much of life to be earnest, which is even better. This splendid mystery, which will keep you guessing, deals with xenophobia, gang violence, the disparities of social class, and the workings of the yellow press—Fredericks knows New York of that era inside out. I wish I’d discovered this series sooner.

Hilary Mantel needs no introduction, nor does The Mirror & the Light, the final volume of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s counselor of common birth. Fiction at its finest, the novel explores the pitfalls and attractions of power while recounting how a gifted politician attempts to keep a childish, make-the-earth-stand-still monarch from destroying himself and his kingdom. There’s plenty of intrigue and backstabbing—we’re talking about Tudor England—but, as usual, Mantel raises the bar. Cromwell’s a master psychologist and political strategist, and, through his eyes, you see a nation grappling with how to escape medieval mayhem and derive a more fitting social template for an increasingly modern age. A timeless story, in other words.

The Yellow Bird Sings an enthralling, heart-breaking song of the Holocaust, and Jennifer Rosner, making an impressive debut here, is an author to watch. The premise is almost a trope by now—in 1941 Poland, a Jewish widow, who has sacrificed so much for her very young daughter just to keep them both alive, faces a terrible choice. She must decide whether to flee alone into the forest, handing her child over to a Catholic orphanage, or to travel with the little girl, who’s too young to have a sense of danger or the stamina to confront it. But Rosner convincingly makes this premise her own; her prose, active descriptions, and sense of her characters’ inner lives make a riveting, moving tale. The little girl possesses no flaws other than those typical of her age, but that idealized portrayal is the only real blemish in a novel that protects no one and whitewashes nothing. Throughout, the author uses music as the means by which the oppressed and hunted may find beauty, though the world at large couldn’t be uglier.

Perhaps the most original novel on this list, which is saying something, To Calais, in Ordinary Time, is James Meek’s plague narrative of fourteenth-century England. His portrayal sounds almost prophetic, published a few months before the pandemic. But that’s just for starters. As one wise character says, “Love is whatever remains once one has made an accommodation with fate”—and accommodation is precisely what nobody’s looking for. The central female character, the daughter of the manor, flees home to escape a forced marriage, seeking her less-than-chivalric lover, whom she expects to behave like the hero of a book she’s read. The central male character, a young peasant, has abandoned the same manor to serve as an archer at Calais, expecting to gain the right to live anywhere he likes—and learns the word freedom, which he’s never heard before. Speaking of words, Meek recounts much of his narrative in archaic language, rhythm, and syntax, with loving artistry and much humor, an impressive re-creation of the period.

A Thread of Grace, Mary Doria Russell’s sprawling Holocaust novel about northwestern Italy from 1943 onward, is a gripping narrative of escape, resistance, and reprisal. The characters, who have known hardship in this hardscrabble region, possess infinite patience and resourcefulness and have learned to expect reversals and the unexpected. My favorite is a former pilot who pickles himself in alcohol and masterminds the local resistance, passing as a German businessman one day, and a tradesman or a priest the next—pretty neat, because he’s Jewish. But many characters win laurels here, and how they manage to live and sometimes love despite terror and hardship will leave a lasting impression. At the same time, Russell pulls no punches—she never does—so this is the war as it really was, not how Hollywood would have it.

Finally, An Instance of the Fingerpost depicts the combat between science and superstition in seventeenth-century England, and what a yarn Iain Pears spins. The same crime visited from several different perspectives, each narrator accusing the others of being unreliable, reveals the punishments inflicted by the self-styled righteous, thanks to their unshakable belief in faulty logic. A brilliant thriller about the nature of truth, this novel has much to say, and says it with insight, high drama, and humor, not least to skewer the disagreeable, smug, hidebound, and cruel behavior rampant in England. As a dead-on satire, the book carries a strongly feminist message, but by demonstration, not soapbox (an approach I wish other authors imitated). In Pears’s world, as in ours, men perceive women through the lens of their own weaknesses, and it’s no secret who suffers most.

I call these books the cream of this year’s harvest. I invite you to the reading feast!

Plymouth Rock Asunder: Beheld

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Review: Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit
Bloomsbury, 2020. 272 pp. $26

In August 1630, as the ten-year-old Plymouth Colony awaits a ship from England bearing more colonists, rivalries and resentments divide the settlement. Alice Bradford, the governor’s wife, who sets the scene and narrates much of the novel, ascribes the tension largely to indentured servants who accompanied the pilgrims but don’t follow God’s ways. That summer witnesses the settlement’s first murder and increasing encroachments on indigenous lives and property. Mistress Bradford’s conscience stirs at how the colonists, led by the soldier Myles Standish, have so quickly forgotten how the Wampanoags saved them from starvation through kindness and generosity.

Nesbit performs a great service in her tale of appalling hypocrisy, brutality, and greed. Her historical background seems authoritative, and I’m glad to see she’s countered a few myths traditionally spoon-fed in American schools. For instance, the pilgrims weren’t all fleeing religious oppression; many sailed from Holland originally, where they’d found tolerance. Rather, they feared intermarriage with the Dutch, whom they despised, and sought economic opportunity in the New World.

Further, they meant to land in Virginia, of which they had heard favorable reports as to the climate and soil, and which put them further away from the Dutch in New Amsterdam. But the captain of the Mayflower, perhaps because the storm-filled, illness-ridden crossing had taken such a toll, held to a more northern course. From that decision arose New England.

Portrait of William Bradford, artist unknown, believed to be seventeenth-century (courtesy http://www.socialstudiesforkids.com/articles/ushistory/williambradford.htm via Wikimedia Commons)

Nesbit performs one other service: She focuses on the women of Plymouth, who have been largely lost to history. Alice comes across especially well, the good wife who sees and understands far more than she can say, who believes implicitly that her husband should rule her as he governs the colony, and who suffers mightily for all that. The novel also pays due homage to the back-breaking work she and other women perform to keep the settlement afloat, about which the historical record is equally mute.

I admire how Alice holds fast to an outlook that her sharp perceptions do nothing to shake, though she herself trembles a little. Also fine is Eleanor Billington, wife to John, both former indentured servants and therefore outliers. Eleanor sees the Puritans for who they are and tries to keep her bad-tempered husband from running afoul of them. Like Alice, she’s trapped: The Billingtons lack the resources to move, and even if they pulled up stakes, they’d lose years’ worth of labor and the land they scrimped to buy.

Alice’s voice is vivid and accurate without adornment, what you’d expect from her, as with her description of the new colonists emerging from the ship:

The first heads to pop up from the tween deck were small black-capped men. Then came three heifers and a bull and behind them, more men, half a dozen women, and with them a handful of children. There they were, four dozen or so, sickly and sea-legged. Their pale English bodies, weakened by the journey, as if ghosts, crossing over. One by one, the women’s bare ankles and leather shoes dipped in the surfaces of the sea. I knew their look well — their hopeful and fearful imaginations of the present situation.

Nevertheless, despite a terrific premise, worthy themes and historical perspective, and excellent female characters, Beheld disappoints me as a novel. Much as I’m glad to feed my contrarian soul against the lies my teachers told me, and though the portrayal of fundamentalists so willing to oppress others feels relevant today, Beheld wants more nuance and more coherent storytelling.

Bradford, though a forceful governor, has no redeeming features as a man except that he’s good in bed — surprise! — or as good as any seventeenth-century Englishwoman has the right to expect. Standish, known as Shrimp because of the short stature of which he’s ashamed, is highly disagreeable, vicious, and treacherous. The murder, announced in the second paragraph, is fairly predictable, and the narrative keeps referring to it before it happens, as if the author (or her agent or editor) feared nobody would keep turning the pages without reminders of Something Really Important. I’ve never liked that authorial technique, which has the opposite effect to what’s intended and makes me think that the novel begins in the wrong place.

The blink-of-an-eye chapters interrupt the flow rather than propel it. Some, from an omniscient narrator called Nature, though prettily written, feel dropped in. All that, and the layout, including unnecessary breaks for different “parts,” gives the impression that the publisher worries that the book looks shrimpy. I don’t see why length matters, but I did want longer scenes and fuller development, especially of storylines and the male characters.

So with Beheld, you get an arresting, unusual narrative inherently noteworthy because of our national myths, yet which feels as if it has holes. I wonder whether Nesbit, with her solid command of the subject, could have filled a few in.

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

Life As Theater: Morality Play

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Review: Morality Play, by Barry Unsworth
Doubleday, 1995. 206 pp. $16

On a cold December day during the second half of the fourteenth century, Nicholas Barber steals upon a group of traveling players who stand away from a dying man, one of their number. Fascinated by the players’ wordless empathy, Nicholas watches too long, and they spot him and demand that he come forward. It’s a dangerous time in England, where the plague rides again, and suspicion and fear influence every interaction, not least with vagabonds.

But Nicholas is a vagabond himself, a priest who has left his diocese without permission. He has abandoned his good cloak in a house where he was committing adultery, and knows his way with a pair of dice in his hand. And when the actors move on toward Durham, where they are to perform Nativity plays for the lord’s court, Nicholas accompanies them.

He could have said that they’d just lost a man they need to replace. But Nicholas is also burning a bridge. The bishop of Lincoln, his patron, might take him back if he turned around right then and honestly repented his lapses. But appearing on stage violates the law. And though that scares him, Nicholas can’t resist — something about playing a part, belonging to the small, tightly knit troupe, has touched him.

However, the next village they happen on has recently witnessed a murder; a young boy has been killed, and a deaf-mute young woman sentenced to hang for it. Martin, the leader of the troupe, convinces the others to perform a play based on the killing, as it has been recounted in rumor and disputation around the village. To do so risks severe punishment, for, on stage as in life, truth comes only from God, and the players, already at society’s margin, will overstep if they pretend to interpret their world — and a profane event, no less. Nicholas, understanding the religious proscription intuitively, is appalled. But the show, as always, must go on.

Frontispiece to Wynkyn de Worde’s 1522 edition of the morality play Mundus et Infans (courtesy G. A. Lester, ed., Three Late Medieval Morality Plays, via Wikimedia Commons)

What a premise, as elegant as you could want. And what a title, literally evoking the medieval mystery play while figuratively showing the changeable nature of moral choices. Further, what the medieval mind called a mystery had to do with Scripture and God’s actions, ever inscrutable. But here we have that framework and an actual mystery alongside, which the performance of the play helps to solve.

I have read this novel several times over the past decade or two, and it remains among my favorites. Most people, if they’ve read Unsworth, will point to Sacred Hunger as his masterpiece, and it’s hard to disagree. Yet Morality Play has so much to say about the role that subsumes the player, not just the other way around, involving so many aspects of private, political, and social life, that I’m in awe.

Success here hinges on the characters, and you’d have to look hard and long before you found a more finely drawn ensemble, literally and figuratively. Besides Nicholas, whose desires outstrip his common sense (which makes him human), you have Martin, teacher, leader, and group conscience; Straw, the outwardly fragile, gifted mime; Stephen, the brooding drunk with a commanding presence; and others, each sustained in-depth without more than a line or two of backstory. Together, they create an amazing performance.

Then there’s Unsworth’s prose, simple, highly physical, conveying the time and place from the inside out. Among other things, the medieval theater comes to life in full panoply, as with a performance of the play of Adam, in which Nicholas changes roles between the Devil’s Fool and a normal one:

I shook my bells and struck the tambourine as I went back through the people. I was a different person now, they did not hate me. They knew me for a japer, not a demon. I understood then, as I passed through the people and shook my bells and saw them smile, what all players come to know very well, how quickly shifting are our loves and hates, how they depend on mocks and disguises. With a horned mask and a wooden trident I was their fear of hell fire. Two minutes later, still the same timorous creature as before, with a fool’s cap and a white mask, I was their hope of laughter. I was discovering also the danger of disguise for the player. A mask confers the terror of freedom, it is very easy to forget who you are. I felt it now, this slipping of the soul…

Morality Play is a work of genius, a mirror on human nature in the fourteenth century and now.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book for my bookshelf, where it has pride of place.

Love’s Pretty Confusing: The Blue Star

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Review: The Blue Star, by Tony Earley
Little, Brown, 2008. 304 pp. $15

Autumn 1941 sees Jim Glass begin his senior year of high school in Aliceville, a tiny town in rural North Carolina. Though aware of war that has yet to involve the United States, and therefore him, he’s more focused on his love life. Having recently broken up with Norma Harris, the prettiest girl in the school, because she’s a know-it-all and won’t kiss him, Jim falls hard for Chrissie Steppe, part Cherokee and wholly mature for her age, which Jim isn’t.

Alfred T. Palmer’s May 1942 photo of a U.S. Marine Corps motor detachment, New River, North Carolina (courtesy Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

She’s also the girlfriend of Bucky, a boy who graduated the previous year and joined the Navy. Bucky’s father employs Chrissie’s family, which, in his case, also means he controls them. By all accounts, Bucky takes after his father, though with a little more polish. Jim knows him as a selfish former baseball teammate, and rumor has it Bucky assumes Chrissie to be his property; her feelings don’t matter.

The Blue Star is a sequel to the delightful, warm-hearted Jim the Boy, which depicts the protagonist at age ten, trying to understand the father who died the week before he was born. The boy’s three unmarried uncles do their best to teach him life lessons and spring him, when they can, from the shackles of his overprotective, widowed mother.

In The Blue Star, they’re much the same, not taking themselves too seriously and attempting to pass that attitude onto Jim, with mixed success. Love is one thing a mentor can talk about all he likes; it’s the boy himself who’s got to get a grip on that slippery, elusive dynamite. Mama doesn’t make it any easier. She was certain that her beloved only child would marry Norma — apparently, in these parts, teenage romance is an immediate prelude to marriage — and can’t stop meddling to save her life.

As he did in Jim the Boy, Earley sets his scenes and emotional challenges in effortless, evocative prose. Consider this moment in history class, where Jim, who sits right behind Chrissie, ignores what their teacher’s saying about the explorations of the conquistadors:

He studied instead, with a scholar’s single-minded intensity, the way the light reflected off Chrissie’s black hair. The day before, Jim had noticed that when the sun hit it just right, it sparkled with the deep colors of a prism hanging in the window of a science class. . . . He studied it so closely that his eyes slipped out of focus and the scale of the room swelled in an instant and became immense around him; he felt suddenly microscopic, a tiny creature swimming in a drop of pond water. At that moment Chrissie’s hair seemed to take on an infinite depth; it became a warm, rich space into which it suddenly seemed possible to fall and become lost.

Physical attraction becomes scientific and heroic at the same time, a search for unheard- of riches.

Jim worries about Bucky and his nasty, irascible father, but makes his pitch anyway. He has the sense to ask questions rather than blather about himself or preen, but he often blunders. He doesn’t always know which questions can hurt, or why, or how they sound to a girl who’s shunned for her race and her poverty. Earley’s approach to race in both novels bears a subtle touch; social barriers are so obvious, they need no explanation. Consequently, Jim, from a comfortable white family that insists on outward respect for all (yet still obeys societal rules without question), has never encountered the pressures Chrissie faces daily, nor has he even imagined them.

To his credit, however, when someone points out that if he married Chrissie, his children would be one-quarter Cherokee, he retorts that it doesn’t matter — they’d be half Chrissie’s. And when Chrissie and Jim click in funny, poignant flights of fancy, he’s subsequently bewildered to find their connection appears to have indelible limits. He believes with all his heart that Chrissie cares for him; why isn’t that enough?

Early captures youthful love in all its pains and awkwardness. Reading it, I winced in recognition several times, and I imagine others would too. Earley doesn’t protect his hero — Jim can be pigheaded, jealous, and selfish — but he has a good heart. True to life, he learns most when he can see past his self-regard, which, among other instances, makes him realize there’s more to Norma than he knew.

Bucky’s posting to Hawaii, this place called Pearl Harbor, feels portentous. Even so, Earley redeems the clunky plot device, for the emotional effects move his characters in unexpected ways, further proof that “no — and furthermore” need not rest on a plot point. The inner journeys of these characters, major or minor, count for everything.

The Blue Star is a marvelously colorful yet understated exploration of love, duty, sex, social prejudice, and what it means for a boy to become a man. I heartily recommend it, as with its predecessor, Jim the Boy.

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

Metaphor for England: The Shooting Party

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Review: The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate
Viking, 1980. 195 pp.

As he does every October, in 1913, Sir Randolph Nettleby, Bart., invites some of the best shots in England to his Oxfordshire estate to shoot pheasant. The activity has a particular meaning here, for we don’t expect tweed-coated gentlemen to trample through the underbrush in their wellingtons, bagging a few birds for supper. Rather, we have the spectacle of “beaters,” local men and boys recruited to flush the pheasant so that the frightened birds take brief flight — the only type they are capable of — toward the tweed-coated gentlemen, waiting with their loaders and dogs. Not that the participants would agree, but this is more mechanized killing than sport. The shooters take hundreds of birds, and the loaders are there to make sure the gentlemen never even have to turn their heads to receive a ready weapon, restocked with cartridges.

Snowden Slights, a Yorkshire huntsman, sometime between 1900 and 1912, by Sydney Harold Smith (or collaborators). A very different picture from the organized shoots on estates at the time. (courtesy Yorkshire Museum, York, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The novel’s opening paragraph notes that an infamous incident will take place, “an error of judgment which resulted in a death.” And since the timing is the autumn before the Great War, Colegate intends The Shooting Party as a metaphor for England on the eve of that tragic struggle.

What a metaphor it is, slaughter for its own sake, by the so-called best people in the country, no less. That the death referred to is a mistake, and that the author reveals it up front, properly removes any sense of whodunit, though the narrative does build suspense as to who will be the victim, how, and why. Instead, Colegate focuses on the characters, who represent various social classes and attitudes.

In lesser hands, this premise and approach could have devolved into a talky, theme-driven tract, populated by two-dimensional ideas rather than characters. But Colegate writes well-drawn people whose private concerns merge beautifully in a single, cohesive picture, and whose opinions often seem contradictory, which makes them more human.

For example, Sir Randolph, courteous to all despite his oft-injured sensibilities, worries that the stewards of the land, as he views himself, are a vanishing breed. Outwardly almost diffident, he nevertheless carries himself as the aristocrat born to rule, and his confusion as to how the world has changed lends him depth. Stolid Bob Lilburn, who believes in form above all, astonishes his gorgeous wife, Olivia, by doubting that there could exist in England any people worth knowing whom he doesn’t already know. Lionel Stephens, a lawyer who seems perfect to everyone, believes he’s passionately in love with Olivia and would be willing to die for her if the fraught international situation brought war. A footman repeats this sentiment to the young parlor maid he fancies, who has the sense to think it’s twaddle.

Throughout, Colegate’s description of the shoot evokes the future conflict, often involving the manner in which the birds, fed and catered to before their destruction, are driven toward the guns. Again, a lesser author might have overplayed the symbolism, but Colegate’s hand remains deft. That’s because she’s careful to keep her descriptions active as well as physically and visually precise. Consider, for instance, how she portrays a poacher waiting to enter the woods once the gentry have finished their initial shoot of the weekend:

Tom waited until they were nearly all out of sight, and until the gold of the late afternoon had been succeeded by the soft pinkish-grey of the early dusk before he moved. The mist was now rising much more noticeably from the ground, still low but thickening, beginning to spread a layer of damp haze which in the morning would linger on the lower ground like spilt milk, while the sky above it became the pale clear blue of another late October day.

Though published forty years ago, The Shooting Party still keeps its edge. It’s one of those elegant novels I admire, in which the central action is itself an arresting metaphor. I must warn you that other than from a library (or sources in the UK), the book may be hard to find. But it is well worth your time and effort, a classic tale.

Disclaimer: I pulled this book off my shelf because it deserves a revisit, as does the feeling these days of holding printed pages in my hands.