Four (More?) Years!


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This week, Novelhistorian turns four, which means I’ve reviewed more than two hundred books. As many of you know, each year I write a post in which I mention, in thumbnail, those that have made the deepest impression on me–or, to put it another way, those I expect I’ll still remember after another fifty-odd books have passed through my hands. This year, I’ve chosen eleven, as follows:

Nicole Lundrigan conveys the hatreds, will to vengeance, and oppression that mark Tito’s postwar Yugoslavia in The Widow Tree, told through the eyes of three teenagers. Her tense, moving narrative shows that for war’s survivors, trust is the first casualty.

The Infidel Stain follows the two amateur detectives M. J. Carter introduced in Strangler Vine, this time in 1840s England, as they unravel the mysteries behind murders committed in a politically charged atmosphere. Carter’s prose and characterizations are first-rate, and she re-creates the upheaval of the Hungry Forties with breathtaking vividness.

Paris Spring, James Naughtie’s excellent thriller about the Paris student uprising of 1968, echoes John Le Carré in its elegant plot with few moving parts, focus on motive, and characters who believe in what they’re doing. It may resolve too neatly, but Naughtie knows his ground, especially the brethren of spydom.

Eleanor Catton tells a Victorian-style epic mystery in The Luminaries, about gold-rush greed, deception, and loyalty in 1860s New Zealand. Where many authors struggle to intersect two disparate lives without resorting to contrivance, Catton seamlessly weaves more than a dozen threads. Skip the astrological charts she includes and dive in.

In The Fifth Servant, Kenneth Wishnia renders a remarkably imaginative mystery, set in sixteenth-century Prague. The Christian community claims that a girl has been murdered so that the Jews can use her blood to make Passover matzo–the old blood-libel myth–and a rabbinical student attempts to solve the case by using his knowledge of the Talmud.

With Mrs. Osmond, John Banville pens the unthinkable, a sequel to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, down to the loop-the-loop sentences that invariably arrive at truth and the intense feelings rendered in a gesture, a glance. But it’s far more than imitation James, which you need not have read to appreciate this novel; Banville underlines the heroine’s masochism, which, he argues, amounts to vanity, an unusual, striking perception.

There are grittier mysteries out there than The Inheritance, but Charles Finch’s warm-blooded Victorian detective, Lenox, is an exceptionally clever sleuth, and the understanding of human nature and the kindness and generosity that suffuse the writing make this novel stand out. Not only will you be entertained, you’ll learn tidbits of information that Finch likes to throw in–for instance, why the British drive on the left.

It’s not kindness or generosity that mark The Moment Before Drowning, James Brydon’s tale that blends colonial war in 1950s Algeria with a grisly murder in Brittany, but it’s a terrific story, and I guarantee it will grip you and make you think. Brydon juxtaposes the two narratives to ask what purposes the law and its enforcement actually serve. Be warned about the torture scenes, but nothing is gratuitous or sensational.

The Wanderers, Tim Pears’s gorgeous, subtle novel, tells a heart-breaking story about two teenagers’ suffering and longing, set in Devon around 1912. She’s the daughter of the manor; he’s the servant’s son exiled from the estate. Pears leaves questions hanging, which will bother some readers, but his prose and characterizations are flawless, and the tension never lags in this simplest of plots.

Another novel I admire for elegant simplicity is The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader’s superb tale about Sarah, an English girl in 1255 who chooses to be a religious hermit at age seventeen. Why she does so, and how her choice changes many lives, not just her own, makes a remarkably complex story, so beautifully and truthfully rendered that you have to remind yourself it’s a first novel.

Last on my list, but only because I reviewed it most recently, is The Mercy Seat, Elizabeth H. Winthrop’s elegiac tale about Louisiana justice in 1943. Nine voices recount the hours before the scheduled execution of Willie Jones, an African-American teenager convicted of rape, and how the verdict has fractured the town. Winthrop manages to recount this heart-rending, provocative story in brief, staccato chapters that form an eloquently coherent whole, pure sorcery that will haunt you.

Those are my eleven favorites. I’ve enjoyed writing my reviews this year and hope you’ve liked reading them.

Walking Dead: The Deepest Grave


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Review: The Deepest Grave, by Jeri Westerson
Severn House, 2018. 200 pp. $29

The waning years of the fourteenth century are a bloody time in London, it seems. Recently buried corpses have been seen traipsing about the cemetery at St. Modwen’s church, dragging their coffins. A seven-year-old has confessed to killing his best friend’s father, a wealthy cloth merchant, and a relic related to St. Modwen has disappeared from that same household.

Enter Crispin Guest, the so-called Tracker of London, who solves mysteries like these for sixpence a day. The Deepest Grave is the eleventh novel of the series featuring his adventures, but Westerson catches you up on his previous career as a knight serving John of Gaunt, when Crispin had a title, lands, and power. He lost them because he backed the wrong horse when Richard II ascended the throne. If the series goes another seven historical years, Crispin’s fortunes should improve when Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son, usurps Richard’s crown. Naturally, however, Westerson’s characters don’t know this, and just about everyone reminds Guest, in one way or another, that he’s a traitor lucky to be alive. One who’s kinder is his former lover, Philippa Walcote, mother of the boy who has confessed to murder — an impossibility, by all accounts, yet the child figures to hang unless Crispin can work his rational magic.

Renold Elstracke’s posthumous 1617 print of Dick Whittington, fourteenth-century London’s famous lord mayor, and his equally famous cat (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons)

I like Guest’s comedown, which forces our hero to earn an honest living and abide in humble conditions, with his apprentice, Jack, and Jack’s pregnant wife. This unusual ménage makes for an intriguing setup and offers opportunities that, unfortunately, Westerson fails to exploit. For instance, the narrative never delves past the surface of its disgraced protagonist’s feelings, whether as a once-favored somebody who has lost everything, or a middle-aged man who has never married. The narrative tells you straight out that he has regrets, but I wanted to see them in action, especially his struggle with them, and how others might view them. Further, he’s too decent to chafe at his reduced circumstances, which I find unrealistic and a shame. Anyone of any era would have strong feelings about falling from grace, and this is the fourteenth century, when venality’s the rule rather than the exception.

But Westerson has a different agenda. Character doesn’t drive The Deepest Grave, which is fine, but I wish it were harder to tell the good guys from the bad, or that her people showed more than a single, overriding trait. Also, a few interactions Crispin has when he’s not solving crimes feel predictable and pat; I’d like this book a whole lot better if his private life were messier.

What all this adds up to is a generic feel, which I see echoed in the prose:

He was able to enjoy the night, the stars peeking in and out of the cloud cover, wisping across the night sky between the tall buildings. The glittering stars marched ahead of them on a cloudy trail. The shops and houses were blue in the falling light. Only the wealthier houses had gleaming candles shining through glass windows. The rest were barred with shutters, with only a stripe or two of light.

To me, paragraphs like these—the only exterior descriptions in the novel–give little sense of London or fourteenth-century English life. I get that the sky is cloudy, but I don’t really visualize it, or what Guest thinks about it; and that sky could have been there yesterday as well as five hundred years ago. How tall were the buildings? What did the glass look like? The streets?

I’m also skeptical that Guest’s belief in reason rather than Scripture meets so little surprise or opposition, when such thinking was a burning offense. Does Jack, who grew up a thief as a young child, really quote Aristotle, as Guest does? Would a fourteenth-century man, no matter how erudite or educated, link the heart to the pumping of blood? (Westerson could have made that point a different way, but the phrasing jumped out at me.)

Nevertheless, The Deepest Grave has its charms. Westerson integrates the two stories, the churchyard walks and the merchant’s murder, with skill and economy. She deftly employs “no — and furthermore,” so that nothing comes too easily for Crispin, who makes mistakes. Unlike Crispin the man, the Tracker of London follows a less predictable path, and the puzzles will keep you guessing.

The Deepest Grave makes thinner, less satisfying fare than other historical mysteries from Severn House, but it’s entertaining and clever in its way.

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

Every Commandment Broken: Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army


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Review: Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army, by Edoardo Albert
Endeavour Quill, 2018. 215 pp. £8

The narrator of this clever, funny picaresque set in ninth-century England tells you what’s what right away. A “vain dissimulator and crafty poltroon,” as he describes himself, Conrad has no use for compassion, empathy, selflessness, altruism, or physical discomfort and believes that bad luck immediately descends if he ever does anything remotely involving them. As it happens, though, Conrad is also a monk — don’t ask — which makes him a little different. Especially from his companion, Brother Odo, who actually takes his vows seriously and seems not to notice that Conrad has broken every commandment and a lot else.

The story begins in a pigsty, appropriately enough, where Conrad and Odo hide from Danish raiders sacking their monastery. In plotting how to escape imminent death or, at best, enslavement, Conrad persuades the credulous, trusting Odo that he has a plan, and no matter what it looks like, it’s for the best and hews strictly to Christian principles. As a consequence, though Odo has moments of doubt, he generally construes Conrad’s most craven acts as noble self-sacrifice, berating himself for not having done as well or for not having realized their true significance. Conrad, he believes, is a paragon of Christian virtue. This is often hilarious, and no matter how many times Conrad lies, appears to ally himself with the Danish invaders, or conspires to enrich himself at others’ expense, Odo sticks by him.

In less inventive hands, Conrad Monk could have been a one-joke story, growing tiresome quickly. Not here. Albert has created a protagonist infinitely skilled at falsehood, flattery, skulduggery, and shameless self-aggrandizement, who cheerfully admits to himself, nay, revels, in his character. And he needs to be that slippery, because “no-and furthermore” happens every other page. How does he escape the Danish warriors approaching the pigsty? Or the mad Saxon king who insists on dying a religious martyr, with Conrad alongside? I won’t tell you — and don’t read the jacket flap — but trust me, these evasions, like many others to follow, are ingenious.

The flap also pretends that Conrad Monk offers a “highly informative trip through the Anglo-Saxon world,” “painstakingly accurate depictions of history,” and “character-driven fiction.” I think even Conrad would blush at those claims. Albert has researched his ground thoroughly — no argument, there — and his descriptions, like the following of a feast, are very evocative:

But of course it dragged on and on, as these things do, with maudlin warriors staring into their cups and telling tearful tales of comrades lost and battles won, while the king’s scop went from telling the tale of Edmund’s heroic forebears through songs of war and dragon-haunted peace to drunken riddles and, finally, blessed incoherence, as his fingers missed the strings of the lyre and his tongue fought a losing battle with his ale-addled wits; he sank into a snoring heap by the fire, a sleep from which not even a volley of thrown bones could wake him.

But come on. Conrad Monk is about as plot-driven as it gets, and nobody will read it to learn about Anglo-Saxon culture, very little of which emerges in its pages anyway. Albert explains that he’s tried to follow historical sources when possible, and that’s commendable. But Conrad’s voice sounds indelibly modern, which is part of the fun, and if you ever ask, “Could his exploits really happen?,” you’re missing the point. Conrad Monk is a funny book. Humor as a theme or approach needs no defense, and dressing it up as something more serious only undermines the joke.

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

Mean Streets: The Devil’s Half Mile


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Review: The Devil’s Half Mile, by Paddy Hirsch
Forge, 2018. 300 pp. $25

Justice (Justy) Flanagan, attorney at law, has returned to the Manhattan of his youth from Ireland, following his legal training and participation in the failed rebellion of 1798. He’s come to make his way in the world and to investigate his father’s suicide. But Justy, who found the body hanging from the rafters, has since learned more than most people care to hear about what violent death looks like, and the precise details he remembers from cutting his father down don’t square with his lessons in what we would call forensics. Moreover, given that his father was involved in an extremely risky financial speculation involving men far less scrupulous than himself, Justy reasonably concludes that motives for killing him abounded, as do suspects.

African Burial Ground, late 1700s, just north of Wall Street, Manhattan (courtesy via Wikimedia Commons)

But Hirsch’s Manhattan in 1799 is a mucky, filthy place, and he’s not just talking about the condition of the streets. The language, Irish-American slang that fills a four-page glossary at the back, is pretty raw too. The title refers to Wall Street, a savage entity with no rules save caveat emptor, and where tempers are short, and memories, long. The stock exchange per se doesn’t exist yet, but trading happens in coffee houses, and a new one has risen specifically for that purpose. Hirsch wants you to read this portrayal, full of rich ruffians who detest even the thought of regulation (despite the Ponzi scheme that set off a catastrophic panic in 1792), so that you realize that little has changed.

This is where Hirsch excels. I find his portrayal of the city the most persuasive, gripping part of The Devil’s Half Mile. Whether depicting the racial tension between free blacks and Irish immigrants, the cut-and-thrust of corrupt finance, the gangs that act like private armies, the prostitution, common thievery, and violence that afflict all but the fortunate few, the squalor in which most people live, or the tiny enclaves of great wealth, the novel gives you New York in its gritty self:

Justy nodded farewell to his friend… He pushed his face into the gust of wind that carried the smell of the city down the hill to the docks. Woodsmoke from a thousand hearth fires, urine from the tanners’ shops, horse shit from the streets, sewage from the septic tanks, fresh blood from the abattoirs, rotting meat and produce from the tips. Bad breath, sour beer, raw spirits, stale sweat. It was like a pungent cloud rolling down the Broad Way to the water, a slap in the face of every newcomer who arrived in the city.
Justy smiled.
It was the smell of home.

Despite this vividness, however, the narrative of The Devil’s Half Mile has a mechanical feel that intrudes, though it’s not for want of plot points. There are plenty of twists and turns, right up to the end. Hirsch has apparently followed Raymond Chandler’s dictum that to restore flagging tension, send in a man with a gun. In this case, it’s more likely a corpse discovered or a knife fight, which gets predictable after a while. Even at that, Hirsch’s machinery might not matter, except that our hero, despite his powers of observation, remains remarkably dense about the obvious, such as the probable killers, the nature of the speculation that his father was involved in, or the mastermind behind all his troubles. Is it that he has to remain clueless until enough bodies fall? To his credit, Hirsch does the fight scenes well and is not squeamish about granting them their proper length, so if they’re a device, they’re a carefully polished one. However, like the grisly findings the sleuthing unearths, the spilling of blood requires emotional transitions from Justy — surprise, horror, the pain of treachery, or what have you — which zip past in clichéd language. His gut clenches, or his fist, a phrase announces that he has “raw feelings,” and the narrative moves on.

As such, Justy comes across as more shallow than he should, which is a shame. Hirsch tries to convey the depth to which violent fury possesses his protagonist, and how Justy’s physical skills may be useful in surviving, but not for living a satisfying life. It’s a worthy theme, especially when the author is after even bigger game; he wishes to connect the skill for violence with English prejudice against the Irish as savages fit only for doing dirty deeds or slaving at the docks. In that, The Devil’s Half Mile is a more ambitious book than it seems at first; but unfortunately, it never realizes its potential.

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

Our National Shame: The Mercy Seat


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Review: The Mercy Seat, by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
Grove, 2018. 254 pp. $26

When the clock strikes twelve one steamy midnight in 1943, New Iberia, Louisiana, will send one of its sons to the electric chair. Willie Jones, an African-American teenager, has been convicted of raping a white woman. But whether young Willie deserves to die for this crime — or, in some minds, whether there was rape involved — divides this small, rural community to the point of violence.

Replica of the electric chair once used at Louisiana State Penitentiary (courtesy Lee Honeycutt via Wikimedia Commons)

Winthrop’s tale evokes To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, but she follows a very different, necessarily compressed route, for the action takes place entirely within twelve hours. The trial is eight months gone, ancient history, so there’s no Atticus Finch to plead for Willie’s life. Rather, his court-appointed lawyers, who never appear in the narrative, hardly opened their mouths to defend him. There is a child narrator, a sort of moral chorus role, the district attorney’s son, Gabe. But he’s one of nine third-person voices telling the story, seven white and two black. All are sympathetic to Willie, in varying degrees and for very different reasons, yet nearly all believe that there’s absolutely nothing they can do or could have done differently. No matter what their station in life, well off, scraping by, or dirt poor, they have one thing in common — they are terribly lonely, and their feelings about the forthcoming execution, which can’t be easily expressed, show just how isolated they are.

The great genius of The Mercy Seat is how Winthrop extracts almost unbearable tension from voices reacting to events that have been ordained, a Greek tragedy about modest lives. Although she reveals slivers of back story that challenge the reader’s assumptions, information isn’t what propels the narrative with such irresistible force. It’s feeling, pure and simple, rendered in physical description, as with this passage from Gabe’s point of view. This kind of writing takes my breath away:

He looks at his father — the lines bleeding back from the corner of his eyes, the hard bone of his nose, the flat space between his eyes, the quiver of muscle along his jaw as he chews — and for a frightening moment Gabe can’t find in all those features the father he knows. He can’t see the man in the backyard, shirtsleeves rolled up, pitching him a ball, or the man with the fishing rod and tan hat at the edge of the bayou, or the man sitting on the edge of Gabe’s bed at night, reading glasses on the tip of his nose. For a frightening moment, studied hard, his father’s features combine into the face of someone he can’t recognize, someone willing to send a man to death, and he feels himself reel the way he did when he took the slug from the Kane twins’ father’s flask, the world suddenly shot into the distance.

Every character in the novel lives with an urgent question, the necessity for all fiction, and that’s what provides the tension. Gabe’s question is whether he can still love the man who’s prosecuted Willie and sent him to the electric chair. And because the reader cares about both characters, you want to know how that will resolve. The Mercy Seat reminds me that heroism may be measured in small gestures, because there’s no chance of a great one.

The passage above comes from a two-page chapter, an authorial decision that cuts two ways. I don’t know how else Winthrop could have told her story through nine, well-crafted individual voices, especially with such thrift and elegiac power. Nor do I ever feel, as I have with other novels told in brief chapters, that the writer is pandering to readers with short attention spans. Still, the rhythm of rapidly changing perspectives gets to me after a while. I’ve never been much for pointillism, though the way Winthrop has selected her dots accomplishes one thing. Six of the seven white narrators wouldn’t call themselves bigots, and you sense their fear of the bitter, violent men who are.

With one significant exception, The Mercy Seat re-creates the time and place in ugly, frightening detail, down to the eagerness of the citizenry to witness the execution or listen to it on the radio (!). But World War II is hardly to be seen, except to provide an emotional transition for two characters. There’s little mention of rationing, though a bakery figures in the action, and there seem to be an awful lot of military-age civilians around.

But that’s a quibble. The Mercy Seat — which takes its title from a blues song about the electric chair — is easily one of the most powerful novels I’ve read this year. And I’m sick at heart to think of how the senseless hatred that condemns Willie Jones remains powerful enough in our country that politicians can appeal to it and hold public office.

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

The Bad Penny: Friends and Traitors


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Review: Friends and Traitors, by John Lawton
Atlantic, 2017. 341 pp. $26

If I were to describe a thriller whose central incident doesn’t happen until around page 200, and whose back-story-laden narrative revolves around an essentially harmless, flamboyantly foolish turncoat spy, you would likely decide that the book was a plodding, pointless tale, not worth your time.

In this case, though, you’d be wrong. The back story reveals England of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties with remarkable vividness, brio, and wit, focusing on, among other issues, laws and prejudice against homosexual behavior, and the equally prejudiced mindset about national security and how to act in its name. You see these come alive through a compelling protagonist, Frederick Troy, not your ordinary copper. Born to Russian émigrés under the name Troitsky, Troy, as even his girlfriends call him, walked away from a scholarship to Oxford to join the London police force and serve in the East End, a tough patch. Recruited to Scotland Yard above more experienced candidates in the late 1930s, he has been solving murders ever since, up until 1958, when the forward action of Friends and Traitors begins. Like many fictional detectives, he sails very close to the wind, and unscrupulous, vicious characters have a way of disappearing when he’s around, whether they belong to the police force or the criminals. So far, he has covered his tracks, but not without attracting suspicion.

Henry_Labouchère, the British parliamentarian whose amendment to an 1885 law intended to combat prostitution made “gross indecency” between males a criminal act. During the 1940s and 1950s especially, the police went out of their way to enforce it.

What threatens to undo Troy at this juncture is his friendship with Guy Burgess, later known as a member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring; but, as this portrayal would have it, Burgess is very much a junior partner in that game. Still, when he defects with Donald Maclean in 1951, their flight embarrasses and surprises the British intelligence community and causes a rift with its American counterparts. Troy, who has known Burgess for decades, first through family connections, and later because the man keeps crossing his path like a bad penny, has always been suspect for this association. But Troy thinks that what MI5 and Special Branch really object to, aside from shame at their own lapse, is Burgess’s unapologetic, open homosexuality, which to Troy shouldn’t be considered a crime.

Moreover, Burgess’s inability to keep a secret, and the relatively short time he was working for the Foreign Office, suggest he’s not much of a threat. Self-absorbed, boorish, insulting, and vain, yes; but since when are those qualities treasonous? Nevertheless, when Burgess lets it be known in 1958 that he wishes to return to England, several people whom both he and Troy know wind up dead, and others are running scared, including at least one former lover of Troy’s.

From there, the pieces that Lawton has laid in place with seeming casualness turn out to matter in ingenious, unexpected ways, so cleverly that not even Troy understands the depth of his troubles before they arrive. The sentence, “Someone was following Troy,” recurs constantly. For a man of his experience, that’s almost an insult. And since he never takes his medicine quietly, he leads his watchdogs in Special Branch up hill and down dale, at one point leaving a Lewis Carroll poem in a tree for them to puzzle over. Very snarky. But what else would you expect from the youngest child with two twin sisters named Sasha and Masha, each of whom has a particular brand of acting badly, and an oh-so-righteous older brother, Battle of Britain hero, member of Parliament, and all that, who may be prime minister one day? It’s always been Troy’s job to be different in a family of individualists, and he does so with a sharp sense of humor.

Then there’s the prose, which evokes myriad times and places, as with this description of the London Blitz:

It seemed to Troy that the night sky was short on sky’s own colour — blue. Reds it had aplenty, from the bright, post-office-van scarlet of the flames that leapt heavenward from burning buildings to the colouring-book-and-wax-crayon carmine of tracers and the paintbox burnt orange of ack-ack shells popping uselessly among the beaten-metal pewter hue of the barrage balloons. Incendiaries burnt white to silver, and the searchlights sliced up the night with long fingers of pure, clear light. Rarely had he seen a plane hit, either ours or theirs, but when it happened every colour in the rainbow might burst forth.

My only quibble is Burgess himself, who’s so unappealing that if I were Troy, I’d run in the other direction. At times Troy does, yet he also seems fascinated, and I’m not sure why. Burgess’s willingness to say what no one else will? Troy’s stubborn refusal to shun a man whom his conventional older brother has warned him about? Hard to know, but I still recommend Friends and Traitors.

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

Lacking Compulsion: West


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Review: West, by Carys Davies
Scribner, 2018. 149 pp. $22

Sometime around 1817, John Cyrus Bellman, an English immigrant to central Pennsylvania, reads about old bones discovered in Kentucky, perhaps belonging to an ancient, unknown animal. Bellman has never heard the like, and he’s immediately transfixed. What kind of creature could it be? Why didn’t Captains Lewis and Clark happen on them during their explorations? Wouldn’t it be a fine thing if he, Bellman, saw these creatures and brought back news of the discovery? So he leaves his motherless eleven-year-old daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, Julie, and heads west, alone, figuring to follow Lewis and Clark’s footsteps.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, merged public-domain images (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a grand scheme, about dreams and dreamers, beautiful in its simplicity. Is Bellman an irresponsible lunatic, as his sister thinks, burdening her with the care of a young girl who barely knew her late mother? But Bess herself, though she loves her father dearly and will miss him, believes in her heart that he’ll find the creatures he’s looking for and return to her. Bess is a dreamer herself, a solitary, sensitive child who wishes she could go to school. You sense that she has wider horizons than the few people she comes in contact with, and that she embodies her father’s spirit.

Davies, a short-story writer of note, spares few words. Her opening chapters offer a primer on how to draw the reader’s attention and allegiance. She creates tension in small moments, using simple words to convey her characters’ thoughts, as with Bellman’s, when he contemplates making his journey:

He cooked, and occasionally he cleaned, and made sure Bess had a pair of shoes on her feet, but he was silent the whole time and sometimes his eyes turned glassy and he would not let Bess come near him. The giant beasts drifted across his mind like the vast creature-shaped clouds he saw when he stood in the yard behind the house and tipped his head up to the sky. When he closed his eyes, they moved behind the lids in the darkness, slowly, silently, as if through water — they walked and they drifted, pictures continually blooming in his imagination and then vanishing into the blackness beyond, where he could not grasp them. . .

But as a novel, West doesn’t work. In fact, I have a hard time calling it a novel, and not only because its 149 pages appear as sparsely populated in sentences as early nineteenth-century Kentucky was in people. The chapters are necessarily brief bits, and though Davies’s skill at creating broad impressions from tiny details would make Chekhov nod in appreciation, the episodes barely skim the surface.

Only one paragraph, a third of the way through, gives a hint of why Bellman has this dream. But even that little is already more than the narrative suggests about Bess’s yearnings. What does she want an education for? What does she think of Lewistown, the nearest settlement, aside from the church she’s made to attend, whose services she finds empty? And what of Julie — what’s her story? What does she want, and why did she emigrate?

There’s simply not enough inner life in West to go around, which makes it all the more difficult to believe the arresting premise. Because yes, Bellman’s idea is lunacy, so much so that it’s utterly implausible. Bellman must realize, at least in part, that Lewis and Clark were more knowledgeable and better equipped than he, yet he charges ahead, with little thought of Bess or Julie. It’s also a head-scratcher why, if the creatures were sighted in Kentucky, he thinks to go a thousand miles or more past that; but never mind.

All the more reason, then, for the narrative to focus on his motives. Is he drawn by the youth and promise of the still-new country, of travelers’ reports of natural beauty, or an extension of whatever it was that led him to cross the Atlantic? West is mum about all that. Well, then, does he have a philosophical or scientific interest in possibly extinct creatures? Nope. His attraction is just mythic, and I sense that we’re supposed to accept it on the author’s say-so.

But how? Davies is so tight-fisted with details of scenery or geography — for a novel that attempts sweep, its camera eye feels devoted to close-ups — that the grandeur and scope of the country seldom come across. Such strong novels as The Landbreakers, The Way West, or News of the World succeed, in part, because they convey all that and more. From those narratives you can see how frontier America was a wild, dangerous place, and no intelligent person would have jeopardized himself or his young daughter so carelessly, unless he had the most compelling urge.

It’s that compulsion, or lack of it, that undoes West.

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

Little Love, Lots of Squalor: The Magnificent Esme Wells


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Review: The Magnificent Esme Wells, by Adrienne Sharp
HarperCollins, 2018. 335 pp. $27

When Esme Silver is twelve, in 1945, her family moves to Las Vegas to work for Bugsy Siegel, the infamous mobster, who’s trying to build a casino and has gotten over his head in debt. You can guess that the Silvers, Ike and Dina, have blithely gone swimming in shark-infested waters, but as you quickly discover, they’ve been doing that ever since Ike got Dina pregnant when she was sixteen.

Their daughter has an inkling of what she’s inherited; the only thing she doesn’t know is how much she’ll suffer for it. As a six-year-old, Esme accompanies Ike to the racetracks of Los Angeles, watches him strut, lose his stake, and then fight with her mother, whose wedding ring he has likely pawned. Or else the little girl joins Dina at the Hollywood movie lots she frequents to grub for chorus-line roles in B pictures. The biggest difference between Ike and Dina is that Ike never blames her for his setbacks—let’s not call them failures — whereas Dina’s resentment simmers just below the surface. If it weren’t for Esme, she thinks, she’d be a star.

And Esme’s penance is heavy indeed. Ike feeds her, sort of, when he has charge of her, but Dina seldom bothers. The little girl wears her mother’s clothing, never gets her hair combed, and rarely bathes. Nor do the Silvers send her to school, but the sort of education she receives is one of a kind–playing her part in the lie Dina tells at the movie lots, that Esme is her little sister, or at the racetrack, scrounging for winning tickets that might have been dropped.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s mug shot, 1928 (courtesy New York City Police Department via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, venal, mob-ruled Las Vegas, though bad for Ike and Dina, is absolute poison for their daughter, particularly once she enters her teenage years and shows she’s inherited her mother’s beauty. Since Dina has always told her that a woman’s face is her fortune, you know that Esme is about to prove it, and with the worst guy possible.

What a dark coming-of-age story, and though Esme is a marvelous narrator — astute, witty, with more than her share of courage—she’s in great pain. I cringed to read about an abused, neglected child who becomes an exploited woman. Nevertheless, she never asks for sympathy, and her clear-eyed honesty compels my allegiance: She admits that she doesn’t act purely from necessity. She enjoys the risk, the reward, and the adulation, and as such, she recognizes her parents in herself.

Sharp’s descriptions, which infuse settings with deep feeling, offer a primer on novel writing. She re-creates Los Angeles and Las Vegas as though she had a camera. You can practically smell the hair oil on the gangsters, and you stand in the casinos with chips in your hand. But the best part is how she reveals both ambience and character. This passage, for instance, shows Ike at the racetrack:

When my father was winning, riding a good streak, every one of his picks coming in big, he would stroll the track, and with each step he took at the turnstile, the paddock, the Study Hall, the grandstands, men called out to him, “How you doing, Ike,” came up to shake his hand, asking who he liked in the fourth or the fifth or the sixth. But when he wasn’t winning, he hunkered down in the back corner of the Study Hall on the bottom level, the concourse, like a delinquent student serving detention. He smoked his cigarettes at his table overflowing with racing sheets, made desperate notes with his worn-down stub of a pencil in his lucky red notebook, always the same kind, which was always fat with money in the morning and by the end of a bad day, thin with nothing but its own lined leaves of paper.

For better and worse, Sharp seals off Esme and her parents in a bubble, with every surface and reflection lovingly rendered. You can understand the temptation, because Esme witnesses scenes she’d otherwise never see, but it’s not always credible. Why doesn’t anyone ever notice that a six-year-old girl isn’t in school? That the Silvers move every few months, and that they don’t want officialdom to know their circumstances, may explain Esme’s truancy, but not how they get away with it. There’s an awful lot of lawbreaking in this story, but no police.

Grand events pose another problem. Sure, Dina and Ike are self-absorbed, but even World War II doesn’t seem to touch them and is barely mentioned, while nobody talks about the Great Depression at all. Despite their Jewishness, which might have pointed them toward events in Europe, anti-Semitism evades their notice until Mickey Cohen, one of the Jewish mob they work for, takes matters in hand. With such an eye for small detail, Sharp could have painted the larger picture, I think, without getting lost in it.

All the same, The Magnificent Esme Wells is a powerful, bold novel, and I recommend it.

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

Pioneer Abolitionists: The Invention of Wings


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Review: The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, 2014. 373 pp. $28

On Sarah Grimké’s eleventh birthday in 1803, her mother, Mary, “promotes” her from the nursery to a bedroom, a welcome, long-awaited change. Sarah’s tangible birthday gift displeases her immensely, however — a slave girl named Hetty, a.k.a. Handful, slightly younger than herself, to be her maid. Sarah’s oldest memory, from age four, which still terrifies her, is of watching one slave whip another on her mother’s orders. The brutality and injustice, driven home by Mary Grimké’s obdurate character — she’s a nasty piece of work — mold young Sarah into an abolitionist. That’s quite a turn for the daughter of a planter aristocrat judge in Charleston, South Carolina, and when Mary calls her “different,” it’s not a compliment.

Wood engraving of Sarah Moore Grimké, date unknown, presumably during her lifetime (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah has no friends or confidantes, and her only allies in her family prove treacherous. Given her longings and principles, she turns to Handful, attempting to free her, sharing secrets and teaching her to read and write (against the law, of course). Handful, however, remains largely unimpressed, seeing her unwilling mistress as a representative of the system.

The Invention of Wings is a superbly imaginative, engrossing novel that occupies difficult terrain, and I applaud the author’s effort and intentions and much of the execution. Still, I wonder about the portrayal of the key relationship, which throws the novel off its footing. From her life as a slave and her own social isolation, Handful would likely recognize the loneliness in the plain, socially awkward Sarah, who struggles with a stammer, and who’s crushed whenever she objects, protests, or simply expresses her individual viewpoint. To be sure, Sarah would never be whipped, may read and write without fear of punishment, eat whatever she wants, need not labor, and at least may protest openly, for what little good it does.

All the same, I think Handful would have come across more completely had she wrestled with two opposing instincts: to go further toward accepting Sarah’s friendship in the spirit it’s offered, warily, while also resenting her like hell. Kidd takes pains to show how Handful’s mother, Charlotte, instills in her the urge to resist, so we’re meant to think her rebellion is earned. Yet her attitudes seem so fully formed and coherent, I kept thinking she anticipates 1960s radicals by a century and a half. Is that implausible? I’m not sure. The Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), were famous radicals of their day, pamphleteers and lecturers for abolition and feminism. Unlike the vast majority of abolitionists, Sarah campaigned not just for ending slavery but for racial equality. So why can’t Handful offer a counterpart?

Maybe it’s because the voices don’t feel quite right. Like Handful’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, Sarah’s righteousness rings hollow after a while. I want her to put two and two together and realize, at least dimly, that her financial and social privilege derives entirely from a system she detests, and that when she dresses up to go to a ball, what she’s wearing on her back has come from beatings, repression, and the cruelest kind of exploitation. Otherwise, how could her hatred of slavery be so certain? I also want the two main characters to tangle over what separates them; instead, they have a few unsettling exchanges and withdraw from one another to the extent that they can.

Despite these flaws, Kidd’s narrative makes an excellent story, and The Invention of Wings re-creates the antebellum South in its mesmerizing, ugly panoply. Her prose feels effortless, never calling attention to itself, with carefully chosen, lucid images inducing a mood. Sarah sees bare tree limbs “spread open like the viscera of a parasol,” or herself betrayed as “the collared monkey dancing to his master’s accordion.” Handful pictures God as a white man, “bearing a stick like missus or going round dodging slaves the way master Grimké did, acting like he’d sired a world where they don’t exist.”

I like how Kidd takes a real-life abolitionist and feminist pioneer and shows you how she came to be. In fact, the feminist thread feels more nuanced and sure-handed to me, evolving rather than springing nearly full-blown into life. Giving the elder Grimké sister a foil in Handful is a bold move, even if their relationship wants more fleshing out, more controversy.

The Invention of Wings is a brave book; perhaps a little more bravery would have made it even better.

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

A Full Life in a Small Room: The Anchoress


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Review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader
FSG, 2015. 310 pp. $26

It’s 1255 in Hortham, Gloucestershire, and seventeen-year-old Sarah takes a vow to live a solitary life of penitence and prayer. She is to pray for Sir Thomas Maunsell, the lord who has granted her the living; the churchmen; and the villagers. Only women may look at her — her maids, and any women or girls who seek her counsel — and the only man who may speak to her is her confessor, Father Peter, who must do so with a curtain separating them.

What a simple premise, so simple that some readers might suppose that The Anchoress consists of interior monologues that pale by page 50. On the contrary. This gorgeous, utterly compelling novel proves, once again, that tension resides not in plot points but the conflict between an inner life and everything else. And here, everything else is plenty, starting with Sarah’s motives in renouncing the world.

A sign marking the cell of a fourteenth-century anchoress of Shere, Surrey (courtesy Suzanne Knights, Wikimedia Commons)

At first, you know only that she believes firmly in God and church teachings, and likens her vocation to an acrobat she once saw, who risked himself flying through the air, and whom she has privately nicknamed Swallow. She imagines her isolation as a risk too, rather than escape. That’s Sarah’s independent spirit showing — yes, even within the strict confines of prayer and meditation, she roams a world no one else dreams of. Of course, there’s more to her decision than faith or fancy. Add her merchant father’s desire to marry her off for commercial advantage, her sister’s death in childbirth, and a dash of teenage cussedness, and you see that Hortham’s new anchoress is no retiring maiden content to nod her pretty head to those who purport to know better.

To no surprise, Sarah’s story quickly becomes one of justice, questioning authority (divine or temporal), the nature of sin and whether women are to blame for it, and the lord’s rights over his vassals. Does Cadwallader push the boundaries of modernity a little? Maybe; at times these thirteenth-century folk seem to reason from a mindset of a later era. Yet Sarah’s emotional and intellectual growth feels completely plausible — this novel, among other things, is a coming-of-age story — and the transitions are never easy. For all that plausibility, however, Sarah’s native intelligence should have prepared her for at least one surprise that the reader figures out long before she does, but that’s a rare slip-up in an otherwise seamless narrative.

You’d expect that a person enclosed in a tiny space would have an intensely physical existence, and that’s true from the start:

I walked the length of myself in the wall with two windows to my altar, counting my steps — nine paces; that across the narrower side, from my fireplace to my squint — seven paces. This would be my world. I touched the squint, a thin window about the length of my two hands from fingertips to heel and as wide as my wrist. I knelt and looked through. It was so narrow and cut on such a sharp angle in the thick church wall that I could see only the church’s altar, its two lighted candles, and the crucifix above.

The strength of The Anchoress is how Cadwallader carries the physical throughout, in concrete, evocative language, using small moments to full effect. The nails that seal Sarah’s outer door represent, to her, the Crucifixion. She begins to see faces in the uneven surfaces of the stone wall surrounding her and imagines the two anchoresses who preceded her, hearing their voices. Images reappear, as with the juggler who made such an impression on her, and with birds that nest on her roof (birds, as symbols of innocence and freedom, matter here). These metaphors slide gently in and out of the narrative, so subtly rendered I had to remind myself that The Anchoress is a first novel.

Sarah expects that abstention from ordinary life will release her from sensations, desires, and anything earthbound. How wrong she is. A glimpse of sunlight, the nestling of the cat who insists on adopting her, the voices of the women who visit (as well as what they say) affect Sarah all the more profoundly for being unusual to her. Her scope may be a tiny sphere, but it’s jam-packed. As her second confessor, Father Ranaulf (who narrates part of the story) observes in a different context, “A woman sealed in a cell, that was all. How could it become so complicated?”

Complicated, indeed, and with an ending perhaps a bit too neat. But spinning the straw of slight circumstance into narrative gold is the novelist’s art, and The Anchoress is one of the best examples I’ve read in a while.

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