Who Owns a Dead Writer?: Max Gate

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Review: Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins
Aardvark Bureau, 2016. 223 pp. $15

It’s 1928, and Thomas Hardy lies dying at his home, Max Gate, in Wessex. This may strike you as a pretty thin premise for a novel, even one as short as this. And if you’re like me and think that Jude the Obscure and Return of the Native are dreary, ponderous sermons, you might have decidedly mixed feelings about the key event in the story.

Max Gate, Thomas Hardy’s home from 1885 until 1928, as it appeared in 2015 (courtesy DeFacto, via Wikimedia Commons)

But never fear. Though much beloved in his household, the failing Mr. Hardy has also evoked less exalted sentiments, even from people who’ve never read him. More importantly, Wilkins has crafted a subtle, insightful exploration of fame–what it means, how people behave in its presence, and who winds up paying the price. And who better to recount the conflicts over divided loyalties and greed than a trusted housemaid? Nellie Titterington respects the dying man, but she feels greater empathy for his put-upon wife, Florence, to whom she’s often a confidante. However, that doesn’t prevent Nellie from seeing and recounting the foibles (and worse) of Mrs. F., as she calls her; the other residents of Max Gate, including the dog, Wessex; and visitors eager to profit from the writer’s passing while calling their interest something else.

Nellie’s voice, clever, lucid, and occasionally ribald, makes a boon companion in a story like this. She narrates in retrospect, but Wilkins handles this perspective wisely and unobtrusively. The essential action occurs over a very few days, without a prologue or jarring shifts in time, and with minimal yet sufficient backstory. Better still, he uses Nellie’s retrospection to make a key point. Unlike other characters in the novel, she refuses to think of these few days as the most significant time of her life, and in later years, she neither volunteers nor denies having witnessed them. To her, becoming a teacher, marrying when she thought she had no chance of it, and raising a daughter matter much more–and no one at Max Gate ever learns of these events. It’s a refreshing comment on the human desire to bask in limelight of whatever source, when true happiness comes from a life well lived.

What’s more, though Nellie grants that Hardy’s a great writer, he’s not a great man, she says; he’s selfish, thoughtless of others, gruff, and not especially brave. No one bears the brunt more than Florence, his second wife, who believes that he noticed whenever she wasn’t there but never longed for her return. Her advisers, whether from blindness or self-interest, assure her after Hardy’s death that she must be wrong, that he loved and cherished her. But they’re so quick to press her about their pet projects, that you have to wonder whether they see her any more clearly than her late husband. Let’s push to have Tom buried at Westminster Abbey, they urge, despite the dead man’s express wish to lie in Wessex. Florence, have you thought about his collected papers?

Then there’s the local reporter, Alex, who never lets decency or common sense prevent him from asking intrusive questions, and who quotes passages from Hardy’s work as evidence that he, Alex, deserves more consideration than the man from The Times. Alex also carries on a flirtation with Nellie, who eventually realizes that he’s untrue to her:

His nose is red from the cold, a detail I’m meanly glad to see since it makes Alex look a bit silly. We haven’t spoken since the day I saw him in town with a woman who wasn’t me, and I walked up to them, as if under a drug, and said words that really felt as if they were attached to a piece of string and I was some magician making an impossible length of choking material emerge from my mouth. Silk.

So Nellie is definitely someone who can stick up for herself–in contrast to Florence–and the reader is left to decide whether Alex actually likes her or is simply trying to get an ally inside Max Gate. Nellie also knows how to laugh, and I did too; for example, at the story about the dog walking the length of a table to eat the meat off Lady Fitzgerald’s fork.

Max Gate moves briskly and is no longer than it needs to be. I sometimes wondered why a few random paragraphs appeared at the start of certain sections, usually literary ramblings or anecdotes. Some were clever, some opaque. But Max Gate is a witty, winning book.

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

In Memoriam: Helen Dunmore

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I read in the New York Times this morning that Helen Dunmore, poet and historical novelist, died on June 5, in Bristol, England. Even though I never met her, I feel sad and bereft, because her voice was one that always moved me. Her novel The Lie was the first book I reviewed on this blog, more than two-and-a-half years ago, and I can’t say I’ve read a more powerful one since. When Dunmore wrote about loss, as she did in that novel, she did so with breathtaking honesty, pulling no punches, sparing nothing and no one. Yet throughout, it’s empathy that comes through most clearly, which is why I can’t put her books down, despite how much they terrify me.

Speaking of terror, I’ve read three of her thrillers, and they’re marvelous. The Siege deals with the German attack on Leningrad during the Second World War, a subject that, by the way, has received plenty of fictional attention. A sort-of sequel, The Betrayal, centers on the so-called Doctors’ Plot, Stalin’s last purge before he died. And Exposed, reviewed here, reinvents the Soviet spy ring that infiltrated British Intelligence during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Helen Dunmore has influenced me as a writer, even though her choice of subject matter and characters differ from mine. I admire her economy, her directness, her lucid prose that never lets beautiful sentences get in the way, and how she can make ordinary moments extraordinary. Most of all, she renders those ordinary moments so that she needs no Very Significant plot points to generate tension, for character drives her gripping narratives, first, last, and always.

I will miss her, and from six thousand anonymous miles away, I offer my condolences to her friends and family. Literature is the poorer for her death.

House of Atreus, Revisited: House of Names

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Review: House of Names,by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 2017. 275 pp. $26

Agamemnon, waiting with his army for a fair wind for Troy, sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods. That act sets in motion a blood-will-have-blood intrigue that throws Mycenae’s House of Atreus into turmoil and evokes moral issues that inspired all three tragic dramatists of ancient Athens: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

Iphigenia in Tauris, as a priestess of Artemis, sets out to greet her brother, Orestes, and his friend, Pylades; fresco from Pompeii, 1st century C.E. (Naples National Archeological Museum, courtesy May Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

Here, Tóibín has departed from the script in an always riveting but occasionally portentous narrative, and the result is a mixed success. As befits its sources, House of Names offers plenty of deep themes, and these intense, jittery Mycenaean royalty have enough ambitions, fears, and rough edges to give those themes superb scope. The story, though familiar, feels fresh, partly through reinterpretation, but largely because Tóibín knows how to evoke corners and wrinkles of character that add tension. Even though you know what happens next, you have room to hope that it won’t go that way, and he subtly encourages this delusion until it’s too late.

The novel opens with Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s queen, narrating how her husband lures her and their daughter, Iphigenia, to his camp on the pretext that the girl was to marry Achilles. I like this section very much. Not only does Tóibín craft the warrior king into a weakling, a vacuous coward who can’t even bring the news himself, an unspeakable father to a daughter who adores him, the women attempt to resist and are crushed as if they were insects. The feminist message comes through loud and clear, but there’s more.

Clytemnestra, whom literature has long stereotyped as a bloodthirsty fiend who knows nothing beyond her treasonous lusts and desire for revenge–a misogynistic portrait, if ever there was one–receives a measure of rehabilitation in House of Names. It’s not just that Tóibín plumbs how deeply her daughter’s sacrifice shakes her emotionally. It’s that the brutality pushes her to declare, privately, that if the gods in fact demanded Iphigenia’s death–which Clytemnestra doubts–that only proves their irrelevance.

I know as no one else knows that the gods are distant, they have other concerns. They care about human desires and antics in the same way that I care about the leaves of a tree. I know the leaves are there, they wither and grow again and wither, as people come and live and then are replaced by others like them. There is nothing I can do to help them or prevent their withering. I do not deal with their desires.

But this being the House of Atreus, Clytemnestra doesn’t stop at philosophy. She swears revenge and spends the years of her husband’s absence planning how to carry it out. When Agamemnon finally comes home from Troy, Clytemnestra murders him and gives out that a rebel faction within the palace was responsible. To accomplish this, she has enlisted Aegisthus, a powerful, unscrupulous man who has own scores to settle, and, she finds, no desire to share power or anything else except her bed–and others’. Clytemnestra has miscalculated by a long shot.

And that too is a theme–how, when killing starts, it doesn’t stop. Electra, her younger daughter, swears revenge in turn, and from her narrative sections, you see that she too wants power. Whereas Clytemnestra loved Iphigenia and, once, her husband, Electra doesn’t seem to love anybody. But she hates her mother, to the point that she blames her for Iphigenia’s death. Clytemnestra has done serious wrongs, but Electra’s approach tells you that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Amid all them is Orestes, Clyemnestra’s son, who grows up an exile and yearns to return home. Again, unlike the classic treatment, this Orestes isn’t a natural leader, an outraged son who demands his birthright. In fact, he’s a born follower and wants to do right, whatever that might be. He has only two desires–to find love and not to be shunted aside. His is the saddest, most poignant perspective in the novel, a balance to the mayhem in which he must participate.

Having loved Nora Webster–and held up its prose as a model for my own writing–I’m startled to say that Tóibín’s style in House of Names fails to measure up. The language seems excessively formal, and therefore often distant; for instance, the author never uses contractions and often adds needless prepositional phrases that make people sound pompous. Sometimes, they speak as if they knew a scribe were in the room, taking dictation for posterity. The rhythm, too, becomes annoyingly noticeable in places, as with the short, choppy sentences in Clytemnestra’s voice.

But my biggest complaint, one that surprises me, is the sheer number of “he felt, she felt.” Tóibín didn’t do that in Nora Webster, a novel remarkable for its artistry in conveying inner life through subtext and by inference, with nary a cliché. Compare that with an example here, “He veered between feeling brave and feeling nervous,” and you see the difference.

As a novel of ideas and a retelling of a powerful story, House of Names is worth reading. But it’s disappointing, nevertheless.

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

Feminism, No Holds Barred: The Wages of Sin

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Review: The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh
Pegasus, 2017. 290 pp. $26

Sarah Gilchrist has come to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in 1892, the first year its doors have opened to female students, and her prospects could hardly be less promising. Her parents have exiled her from her well-to-do London home for “immoral behavior,” of which she’s entirely innocent.

The main building of the University of Edinburgh medical school, completed in 1888 (courtesy Kim Traynor, 2010, via Wikimedia Commons)

But no one knows how Sarah has suffered, nor, if they asked, would they believe her. In fact, no one treats her more cruelly than her family, putting her through unspeakably barbaric, criminal horrors that she relives in nightmares. Many people go out of their way to hurt and malign her, like her aunt and uncle, with whom she lives, and whose bullying she must accept or face further punishment. At least, Sarah can talk back to the male medical students who resent the women who’ve invaded their preserve, and sometimes, even her professors. But then there are Sarah’s female classmates, the very people who should have the most sympathy, who delight in persecuting her.

Welsh excels at many things in this, her first novel. Chief of them is how she re-creates the vicious social order that imprisons not just Sarah but all women in Edinburgh, most of whom lack her advantages of wealth and social standing. It’s these women to whom Sarah dedicates herself and her education, working after hours at an infirmary in a poor neighborhood. The only thing that keeps her going is her dream of becoming a doctor, serving these people, and having a profession that will let her live in the world instead of as a cloistered wife. And she knows that one mistake, perceived or real, could cost her that dream.

So one night at the infirmary, Sarah turns away a young prostitute, Lucy, who asks for an abortion–which would have been a hanging offense for both parties–only to see the girl’s corpse soon afterward on the dissecting table in anatomy class. Sarah believes Lucy was murdered and sets out to discover who killed her, even as she recognizes that doing so may well drag her down. Not only does her quest bring her to disreputable places, she quickly arouses suspicion from a brilliant but irascible professor who’s quite capable of having her expelled from the university. Is he involved in Lucy’s death? Was he using her? These are deep waters, indeed, and Sarah learns that she’s not as good a swimmer as she thought.

In the process Welsh roils the currents, another pleasure of The Wages of Sin. Sarah should be the least worldly medical student in Edinburgh, but her sufferings and her work at the infirmary have taught her more than the others will ever know. When her female classmates pass out leaflets condemning prostitution and think themselves virtuous, Sarah scoffs in contempt:

They were so innocent. They were so lucky. They hadn’t turned away a frightened, desperate girl. They didn’t have a woman’s death on their conscience, her blood on their hands. They were little girls dressed in their teacher’s clothes, playing with women’s lives as they once played with their dolls, ignorant that all the sermonizing in the world wouldn’t save the soul of someone with a malnourished body.

As Sarah takes larger and larger risks to uncover the truth, the pressures increase from all angles. Her aunt and uncle want her to forget medicine and marry a vacuous, socially inept young man from a good family, and Sarah dares not resist openly. The irascible professor keeps running into her, alone, in places where she shouldn’t be, even chaperoned. Maybe he shouldn’t be there, either, but as a man, he has more moral latitude.

As you might guess, then, “no–and furthermore” lives large in these pages; the narrative consistently thwarts Sarah’s efforts, just when she thinks she might have gotten somewhere. For the first 90 percent of this novel, you couldn’t ask for more riveting storytelling. Throughout, Welsh has made the personal political, asked hard questions about feminism that sound as topical today as they must have seemed radical in 1892, and depicted as vivid, gritty a picture of late Victorian life as you could want.

Unfortunately, the last 10 percent nearly undoes the rest. Having pushed Sarah into a tight corner with hard-edged reality, Welsh builds her resolution on clichés. The killer turns out to have sociopathic tendencies–a cop-out and a tired convention–and is also supremely talkative, for no apparent reason other than the author’s convenience. The final confrontation feels like melodrama, a startling departure from an otherwise bold, original narrative. I think Welsh could have done better–I’m sure of it–and not just because she’s a talented writer.

But read The Wages of Sin, and you be the judge. Despite the flawed ending, I think you’ll be gripped.

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

A Programme Too Full: Radio Girls

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Review: Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford
NAL, 2016. 367 pp. $16

Maisie Musgrave, a young woman down to her last tuppence, gets a secretarial job at the BBC, a newfangled and perhaps not entirely respectable organization in 1926. After all, what is radio, how does it work, and isn’t it improper to hear a disembodied voice? But, like the protagonist in this engaging, amusing novel, the BBC is about to spread its wings and soar. The real questions involve how bumpy the ride will be, and who will learn what along the way.

Maisie, who looks, feels, and acts like a doormat, could use a lift. Growing up in Toronto, she was bullied for much of her young life, labeled “Mousie Maisie” with no kindness, yet some accuracy. Maisie has no idea who her father was, except that his name is Edwin Musgrave, and he didn’t stay long. Her stagestruck mother, Georgina, has no use for her, and her grandparents want nothing to do with her. So she has come to London, for reasons not entirely clear, feeling somehow that England offers the roots she has never known.

Consequently, getting a job at the BBC, to Maisie a posh outfit where breeding and education matter above all, is more than a godsend–it’s a lifeline. And she clings to it with all her might, which, with experience, proves stronger than she’d ever have guessed.

The first BBC aerial, atop Selfridges, the Oxford Street department store, London, 1926 (courtesy “The Dawn of the Wireless in the U.K.”)

To me, this is the best part of Radio Girls: the coming-of-age story; a young woman learning to ask questions rather than keep the silence she’s been taught; the office politics, invariably charged with sexism; and the working of a radio institution as it invents itself. Stratford excels at all this, and the narrative clips along, as Maisie learns the city, and about life:

The [tram] ride was long and she had to stand, but she didn’t mind. The car had a rhythmic sway, the bell tinkled happily, and one never knew when a sudden screech or thrust would disrupt the song, jolting them all out of their morning meditation. It was a kind of jazz, the only kind she could afford, and so she embraced the fizz of cigarette smoke, the lingering smell of coffee, and the crinkle of newspapers that added to the hum and percussion. It wasn’t stealing to read the paper over a man’s shoulder, gleaning nuggets of the world and enjoying the smell of Palmolive shaving cream. And she watched London unfold before her.

The chief conflict lies between the BBC’s director-general, Reith, and Hilda Matheson, who runs the section called Talks, and whose protegée Maisie eventually becomes. Reith is a Puritan who hates controversy or anything his nineteenth-century mind can’t wrap itself around, which is just about everything Hilda lives for. He’d fire her, if he could, but she has powerful friends, and the Talks programs–short discussions, presentations, or debates on every conceivable topic–generate tons of fan mail and expand the BBC’s audience.

I like this story, and despite my criticisms, I think Radio Girls is worth reading. Nevertheless, Stratford adds more, and that’s where she gets into trouble. The prologue, which dangles like the useless appendage it is, suggests a thriller, and yes, that subplot emerges about two-thirds of the way through, late in the game and superfluous. To be fair, the thriller part has life to it, with a couple famous figures contributing zestful dialogue and presence. But it’s too earnest by half–a screed against Fascism–and utterly improbable, whereas the rest I believe implicitly.

Besides, I’m more interested in Maisie and her struggles than in Hilda Matheson, her boss. Stratford explains in her Author’s Note that Matheson, a real historical figure, fascinates her. I agree that Matheson’s a worthy subject, perhaps for a future novel, but dragging her connection to MI5 and the clumsy thriller resolution into Radio Girls seems a stretch, at best.

I’d have also liked to see a firmer grounding in the era. Though characters talk about the Great War and the politics of the Twenties and early Thirties, you don’t see them. Stratford conveys Maisie’s poverty with great vividness, but London has no wounded veterans holding tin cups on street corners, no smog or grit to blight the air or the soul. Reith recites the mantra of a man from his time and social class, but Radio Girls doesn’t show what he’s talking about; it’s all abstract.

Reith’s a problem in himself, like the other men in this book. They have no inner lives and no contradictions, only flat surfaces, and though Stratford offers clever observations about them, the men are simply that, observed. Though I detest their sexism and what they stand for, and I cheer for Maisie and Hilda to go onward and upward, as they both like to say, I wish Radio Girls delivered more than the obvious.

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

Trial by Fire: The Ashes of London

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Review: The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor
HarperCollins, 2016. 482 pp. $27

Given its numerical sequence, the year 1666 evokes portents of deviltry in many superstitious people who lived then, so the Great Fire that ravages London can only have a malign explanation. The cause isn’t hard to figure, for within living memory, Oliver Cromwell had a king’s head struck off, an act that still divides the country, and which many assume has invited divine vengeance.

But the heavens have no monopoly on violent expression, for the dead monarch’s spendthrift, wastrel son has regained his throne, fixated on eliminating anyone connected with his father’s execution. Suffice to say that English folk have myriad motives for killing or extorting one another, as if they believed the fire hasn’t gone far enough, and further destruction requires their assistance.

The Great Fire of London, by an unknown painter, presumed seventeenth century (courtesy Museum of London via Wikimedia Commons)

James Marwood, a young clerk of quick wit but poor prospects, must negotiate this political and social maelstrom against terrific odds. In the ashes of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a man’s body has been found, stabbed expertly in the neck, with his thumbs bound together. James must investigate while maintaining his clerkship to an irascible, suspicious newspaper publisher who hobnobs with the great. Naturally, the great take a keen interest in the murder case. Naturally too, their number keeps growing, their interests conflict, and they each take James aside to enlist his aid, bargains in which he has no choice. Not only must he please them to remain employed, what little income he has must support his ailing father, who served five years in prison for his association to the regicide faction, a fact no one has forgotten.

Should James disappoint any of his taskmasters, Marwood père will likely dangle from a rope, and James may follow after him. Further–and what a brilliant stroke–James dislikes his father, a difficult, selfish man who cares only for his apocalyptic visions, and who, in his half-demented state, is liable to wander off, preaching seditious monologues that will bring the king’s soldiers running. So James has absolutely no freedom in which to move; he’s caught between many fires, not just the one burning the city.

Meanwhile, there’s Catherine Lovett, a young woman whose father also belonged to the regicide faction and has spent years on the run. Catherine, or Cat, as she’s called, lives with her aunt, uncle, and lecherous cousin, but through a trusted servant, has been trying to find her father. Like James, she has mixed feelings about her paternal relative, but she’s miserable where she is, and he’s her only surviving family, so she hopes that by reuniting, life will improve for both of them.

Fat chance. As the novel begins, Cat and James cross paths as the flames engulf St. Paul’s, into which she tries to run, and from which he restrains her, receiving a nasty bite on the hand for his pains. But he gets off easy, compared with others who cross her, and though you could say they mostly deserve it, she’s not someone to trifle with. And you can bet that as James penetrates the mystery of the corpse at St. Paul’s, and of others to follow, their paths will converge again.

How that narrative unfolds is one of many pleasures The Ashes of London offers. Another is the prose, which conveys the place and time so completely that you feel you’re in it.

St. Paul’s had given up a number of its dead because of the Fire, for tombs had burst open in the heat and flagstones cracked apart. Some corpses were little more than skeletons. Others were clothed in dried flesh in various stages of decay. . . . The souvenir hunters had been at work, and there were bodies that had lost fingers, toes, hands or feet; one lacked a skull.

Taylor pays particular attention to social class, one way the novel feels alive. Cat, who grew up in a comfortable home and who flees her wealthy aunt and uncle’s house, must become a servant and go into hiding. For the first time, she walks alone in London and becomes a target for any man who cares to touch her or make lewd remarks, which underlines one difference between rich and poor. (That said, when Cat was with her aunt and uncle, she was betrothed to a titled suitor who seemed little better.) Similarly, James’s investigation would be complicated enough without having to bow and scrape before people who don’t condescend to notice his presence unless they wish to bully him–or, conversely, people of lower station than himself who act servile but may be untrustworthy. All this, Taylor handles deftly.

For all that, I wish he’d expunged the clichés that occasionally mar his narrative. (“Cat could not speak. Her happiness was sponged away. Fear made it hard to breathe.”) He’s a much better writer than that, and for the most part–the vastly greater part–it shows in The Ashes of London.

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

Boy Meets Girl: The Golden Age

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Review: The Golden Age, by Joan London
Europa, 2016. 221 pp. $17

Unlike nearly all their extended family, twelve-year-old Frank Gold and his parents survived the Holocaust in Hungary, after which they emigrated to Perth, Western Australia, in 1946. But shortly afterward, Frank comes down with polio, a cruel blow that overwhelms his mother and father, neither of whom has much capacity for warmth or emotional expression, which leaves the boy struggling to find a reason to live or to hope. He’s a cynical lad, in some ways, too clever for his own good, though what’s underneath is raw and vulnerable. But he needs an outlet for those feelings, and he’s unlikely to find one without help.

Perth, Western Australia, as it appeared around 1955 (courtesy E. W. Digby, via Wikemedia Commons)

At the Golden Age, a small institution devoted to young polio victims, Frank, now almost thirteen, meets Elsa Briggs, six months younger than he. Until she was stricken, Elsa was a happy, radiant child, joyful and self-directed. Her parents are even less capable of facing their family tragedy than Frank’s, especially her father, who finds reasons to avoid Elsa. During his few visits to the Golden Age, he exhorts her to learn to walk again, already.

Meanwhile, Elsa’s mother, with younger children to care for, is too overwhelmed to do much, and she’s a doormat anyway. So Elsa, like Frank, feels abandoned, especially as she gathers that her younger siblings have taken over her belongings, her bedroom, her place in the house. Never having grappled for existence as Frank did, she’s less defended against her plight, which makes her both more innocent and yet more resolved, in her own quiet, self-enclosed way. She’s waiting for someone to understand her, though she doesn’t quite know it yet.

How these two brave, suffering kids find each other makes for a touching, beautiful story. But it’s not only a romance; I admire the way Elsa and Frank begin to realize themselves, how they unfold as the adults they will become. Which is only natural, for love would otherwise be impossible–and make no mistake, their feelings are real, not puppy love.

Being close made them stronger. They sat talking on the verandah or the back lawn. Their faces had colour. For some weeks now they’d shared the lonely task of rehabilitation, doing their exercises together. The Scottish physiotherapist commented on their rapid progress and motivation. The days were not boring, but seemed to hold at every glance something to tell the other. During the night they missed each other. Each morning was a reunion.

London’s prose is sparing and her chapters short, as is the entire book. But her vision and clarity ring out from every page, and each character has an inner life, not just the principals. I’ve rarely read a novel in which the author paid so much attention to minor figures, but you never feel as if the narrative has lost its way. On the contrary; everything fits. What’s more, the story, though more or less plotless, never flags, as each small moment takes on great significance. And the Golden Age is no Dickensian horror but a warm, sensitive, caring environment, staffed by hard-working people.

Rather, the horrors are the parents, who don’t know how to deal with their children’s illness except as a slap, a shame, a comment on themselves, which only sharpens the divide the kids feel from the outside world. By contrast, Olive Penny, the head nurse, is an intuitive, empathic soul who understands her charges and refuses to judge them. Her search for love mirror’s Frank and Elsa’s, though of course she’s coming from a vastly different perspective. She doesn’t expect much, but she’s not bitter about it–she gets that life has its limits, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

Other parallels to Frank and Elsa’s tale are those of Meyer and Ida, his parents. They struggle with their feelings of displacement from Europe, the guilt of having survived, their terror that, as so-called New Australians, they’ll be perpetual foreigners–or, in Ida’s case, her refusal to accept Australia as her permanent home. Meyer unbends more easily and, as such, can help Frank more. But in the end, Frank has his own path to follow, and, true to himself, he finds it from a fellow patient, a boy older than himself who writes poetry in his head while ensconced in an iron lung.

If I have one bone to pick with The Golden Age, it’s that London sometimes tells too much. But she also shows plenty, and with such a light hand that it’s hard to find fault. What a remarkable novel.

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

Two Young Men: Valiant Gentlemen

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Review: Valiant Gentlemen, by Sabina Murray
Grove, 2016. 489 pp. $27

This superb, engrossing novel derives much of its considerable charm from a rare feat. Valiant Gentlemen explores utterly serious subjects with insight and compassion, yet the author doesn’t take herself too seriously, nor do her characters. And this must be intentional, because when one character begins to look too hard at his reflection in later life, this shift marks his downfall.

The three stars in Murray’s constellation are Roger Casement, Herbert Ward, and Ward’s wife, Sarita. All three were historical figures, and Casement is particularly significant, a man who campaigned against colonial abuses in Africa and for Irish independence. If you’ve heard of him, you’ll almost certainly know his tragic end; but in this book, the journey counts more than the destination, so don’t let that deter you. (That said, skip the jacket flap, a hodgepodge that accomplishes nothing except to blab what should be withheld and hide what should be revealed.)

Herbert Ward, left, and Roger Casement, as young adventurers in the Congo in the late 1880s (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The journey here begins in the Congo in 1886, where young Casement and Ward meet. Both are looking for gainful employment and adventure, but since the work pays little, adventure keeps them going. At first, they toil for King Leopold of Belgium and his so-called International Association of the Congo, but then for British trade interests, both of which carry political consequences. However, at this point, those considerations still percolate below the surface. Ward, a former circus acrobat, seasoned traveler, dead shot, and gifted sketch artist, is at heart a deeply lonely man who wants to make good. Casement, a skilled linguist, brilliant organizer, charismatic, and possessed of boundless energy, is lonely too, but for a different reason. He’s homosexual, a fact he must conceal, and he’s hopelessly attracted to Ward.

I find Valiant Gentlemen irresistible, the African scenes especially, because I’ve lived in Central Africa and researched Leopold, his hireling Henry Stanley, and the colonial plunder of that region. So it’s a particular pleasure to run across names of peoples, places, and historical figures I haven’t seen in years, more so that Murray captures their essence. For instance, when Ward remarks of Stanley’s latest book that it’s full of bravado, Casement ascribes that to the “typical writing style of short, ill-tempered men.” Touché. And when Murray describes the weather, and its “usual blanket of heat,” she re-creates what it feels like to be in that place:

Casement might welcome rain, but that would transform the path into a river, which would, in turn, give way to a mud track. And the brief relief from the insect population that happens in the wake of these torrential downpours would only offer up the intense humidity that mosquitoes love so well. One discomfort merely exchanged for another, which makes the absence of choice about such things almost tolerable. Or at least promotes a philosophical stance regarding his lack of control.

The two men’s paths diverge, as each gets what he’s been looking for. Casement sets his sights on becoming British consul in one African colony or other, and Ward leaves Africa and gets married. His bride is an Argentinian-American heiress, so you may well ask how a penniless, erstwhile acrobat manages to attract her and earn her father’s consent. But I won’t tell you, except to note that Sarita Sanford is a woman ahead of her time and says what she thinks. When two such irrepressible spirits meet, the results are bound to be hilarious.

The marriage gives Ward what he’s always wanted, respectability. But, unlike Sarita, he calls that an end in itself, the mirror-gazing I referred to above. She’s less conventional than he, perhaps because she recalls her early girlhood, and what it was like to be poor, differently from how Ward holds onto his past and a father who had only contempt for him. So he doesn’t quite know what to make of Casement the muckraker, who earns fame publicizing Leopold’s brutalities, a gripping subject that Murray handles with skillful economy yet raw power. Ward’s always happy to see Casement and drink with him–and the Ward children love their Uncle Roddie–but you sense the growing rift between the two old friends, and a betrayal in the wind. Sarita, meanwhile, understands Casement perhaps better than her husband, though the two men have a bond she can’t share. The First World War brings matters to a head.

Murray dazzles you without being self-conscious; it just seems natural. So it’s startling to come across phrases like “tipping point” or “I’m fine with that,” which I doubt were current in 1910, or careless errors, like council when the text implies counsel. All the same, I’m fine with unbridled zest and a bubbling, potent narrative; Valiant Gentlemen is a brilliant, magical book.

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

A Pox on Those Borgias: In the Name of the Family

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Review: In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant
Random House, 2017. 429 pp. $28

The best fiction portrays larger-than-life characters as real people, and you couldn’t ask for larger figures than the Borgia clan. Here, the sequel to Blood and Beauty, Dunant gives us a fifteenth- and sixteenth-century pope who raises corruption to a high art, even for the papacy, and two of his infamous, illegitimate children. Cesare’s a murderous, charismatic military genius of absolutely no scruple who terrorizes half of Italy. He also has, shall we say, deeper than brotherly feelings toward his beautiful, younger sister, Lucrezia, whose marriages he arranges and whose husbands he disposes of according to whim.

Bartolomeo Veneto’s portrait of a young woman, possibly Lucrezia Borgia, ca. 1510 (courtesy National Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.)

What Dunant does with these remarkable figures–and, by the way, throw in Niccolò Machiavelli, Florence’s envoy to Cesare–is itself extraordinary. I won’t say she makes Cesare sympathetic, which would be asking too much. He’s not the only politician who can wield a knife blade, either himself or by proxy, yet Dunant makes no excuses for his particular brand of viciousness. But she does show his passionate attachment to his sister (the incestuous current largely omitted in this book, oddly enough), and his attempts to end brigandage and corrupt taxation. He even earns the loyalty of certain people, at least those not related to the bodies dumped in the nearest river. Likewise, though his father, Pope Alexander VI, is the definition of venality, he also loves his children deeply, as well as the courtesans who bore them. So he’s a real person too, with a sense of humor, a cheerful outlook, and more avarice than most, but again, not alone, there.

However, Lucrezia holds the center. Only twenty-two but on her third husband, the heir to the dukedom of Ferrara, she’s well aware that she lives in a house of cards. Her presence in Ferrara pacifies the powerful Este family and keeps them grudging allies of the Borgias; the immense dowry she brought doesn’t hurt, either. But her aging father-in-law, the current duke, makes no secret of his disdain for her, and should she fail to produce an heir, the only thing standing between her and a sorry end is Cesare’s army. And Cesare, though he seems never to lose a battle, is dying a slow, miserable death from “the French pox,” also known as syphilis.

Dunant excels at small moments, and she renders her characters’ inner lives with a sure hand, no mean feat when they’re historical personages whose psychology may or may not emerge in sketchy contemporary sources. Take, for example, Lucrezia’s first official meeting with her husband-to-be, Alfonso, who unfortunately shares a name with her predecessor, the one she truly loved:

Noblewomen are early connoisseurs in the art of the courtly kiss, and over these last weeks Lucrezia has been gobbled and pecked, dribbled on and stubble-scraped, has even felt the nibble of teeth and odd teasing flash of a tongue. But this, this, she thinks, is more like a wet dog flopping down onto a hearth. As he [Alfonso] lifts his head, she takes in a lungful of sweat and leather. If perfume has been applied, it is long lost in the dust between here and Ferrara.

Dunant intends to show not only that Lucrezia’s a pawn in the Borgia’s power game, but how all women of that time are invisible except as sex objects. It’s not just that men succeed in labeling women as temptresses, the embodiment of sin, the weaker vessel, and all that. It’s that women are unworthy of serious notice, so that, for instance, medicine hasn’t bothered to study whether men can transmit the French pox to women, and what happens when they do. Or, on a more intimate level, Alfonso and Lucrezia feel strain in one another’s company, yet he sees no reason to learn how to talk to her. Even Machiavelli, who lives to talk politics and history, refuses to do so with his wife, Marietta, whose only legitimate role is to endure his long absences and infidelities.

All this is excellent, sometimes brilliant, even, and always interesting. Yet In the Name of the Family doesn’t quite hold together for me. The narrative depends on episodes, many of which could drop out of the book and leave the plot unchanged. Nothing that Macchiavelli does or says, really matters, for instance. Each episode may keep the pages turning, but they don’t always feel connected, except by chronology, so there’s no crescendo of tension, no climax. The end just peters out.

To an extent, Dunant has little choice, because history doesn’t cooperate with timely cataclysms, and, to her resounding credit, she’s faithful to history. Nevertheless, reading In the Name of the Family sometimes feels like fictionalized history rather than a novel. I still recommend it; I think it deserves wide readership; but I liked Blood and Beauty more.

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

A Tender Plant: The Ballroom

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Review: The Ballroom, by Anna Hope
Random House, 2016. 313 pp. $27

Ella Fay feels so oppressed by the Yorkshire textile mill at which she works that she breaks a window in a frenzied fit. For her crime, and because this is England in 1911–when the lower classes aren’t deemed to have feelings, let alone to be worth understanding–she’s bundled off to Sharston, an institution on the moors.

West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, (later High Royds Psychiatric Hospital), was the model for Sharston. One of Hope’s forbears was an inmate, for a time (courtesy highroydshospital.co.uk, 2006, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sharston is a desperate place that mingles the mentally disturbed with people who only seem so or who plainly aren’t, and whose only offense is poverty. But no matter how they got there, they know that no one leaves except feet first, about which there are many terrible rumors and some hard evidence, for a few men are assigned to dig the common graves.

John Mulligan is one, a man weighed down by promises he broke and wrong turns he made. But he’s sensitive and intelligent–far more than the asylum officials who keep him locked up–and you sense that something within yearns to break out and, if necessary to break heads.

But Sharston has one redeeming activity. Though the men and women are strictly segregated, once a week, those who’ve behaved themselves are allowed into the ballroom to dance. Through John’s eyes, you see the anticipation:

The men on John’s side disappeared off to the washrooms, and when they came back they had scrubbed faces and hair spat on and smoothed down. You could taste their excitement, thick and sticky, filling the air and leaving room for little else. It disturbed the far-gone ones on the other side, who got restless in their chairs and moaned and shouted out. John sat himself in the corner and took small shallow breaths, trying not to let it in; it was a terrible dangerous contagion, hope.

John and Ella dance, and from that springs an unlikely romance. What a tender plant it is, their love, for, if discovered, it will be uprooted; and meeting outside dancing hours is strictly against the rules. But John contrives to write Ella letters and smuggle them to her. At first, he only describes the sky and trees he sees during his work, because he knows Ella’s shut inside, as are all the women, which he considers an outrage. But what he doesn’t know is that Ella can’t read, and that she must ask her friend Clem to help her. (Clem is short for Clemency, an ironic name, for she receives none.) So Clem becomes Fay’s scribe, deriving perhaps too much vicarious pleasure from her role and inevitably forgetting where the boundaries lie.

It’s a brilliant touch, but no less so the character of Charles Fuller, the assistant medical officer. Fuller believes in eugenics, and as the novel opens, he’s struggling against the main intellectual current of his scientific faith, which says that enforced sterilization is the only way to preserve England. Otherwise, the nation will be overrun by the poor, the unfit, and the mentally ill, too depraved to know better than their savage ways, or even to care. It’s blood-curdling to read this tripe–even worse to know that such luminaries as Winston Churchill actually agreed–but at first, Fuller objects, because he believes that he can “save” John Mulligan and burnish his own career by doing so. So he makes many observations about John, intending to write a paper contesting that certain promising asylum inmates may, in fact, be rehabilitated.

However, Fuller has a deeper conflict. He’s a repressed homosexual, and he believes that if he followed his desires, not quite expressed but tangible nonetheless, he’d be filthy, dangerous, and depraved. In other words, he’d be no better than Sharston’s population, whom he holds himself above with a tenacity that shows how inadequate he feels (and once you meet his parents, you know why). Consequently, since he can never follow his heart or be happy, he hates anyone who can. John and Ella, be warned.

I criticized Hope’s previous novel, Wake, for the shallowness of the male characters. Nothing could be further from the truth in The Ballroom. Fuller, John, and John’s friend, Dan Riley, are complete people, and several minor male characters come across strongly as well. I think Hope relies too heavily on coincidences, of which one’s okay, but three’s a crowd. Similarly, Fuller’s behavior doesn’t always seem consistent with his character, as if his erratic boomerangs served the author’s purpose too conveniently. And, as usual, I wonder why Hope needs her prologue, which, also as usual, compromises the tension somewhat.

Nevertheless, The Ballroom is a marvelous novel, full testimony to the power of love, and I highly recommend it.

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