Plymouth Rock Asunder: Beheld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life As Theater: Morality Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love’s Pretty Confusing: The Blue Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphor for England: The Shooting Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s a Reliable Narrator?: An Instance of the Fingerpost

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Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears
Berkeley, 1998. 704 pp. $20

As this captivating novel begins, Marco da Cola, a self-described “gentleman of Venice,” offers his account of his visit to England in 1663. Sent by his merchant father to see to business affairs that have gone wrong, da Cola also carries a letter of introduction to notable English scientists, for our Venetian gentleman has interests there too. Accordingly, he travels to Oxford, where he meets Robert Boyle, the famed physicist, among others, and discusses the proper approach to observation and reasoning concerning both accuracy and conformity to God’s laws. Right away, these principles are tested, through an unheard-of medical treatment, a murder, an investigation, and a punishment, in all of which da Cola plays an important role.

Robert Boyle, physicist, chemist, and philosopher, as painted in 1689 (courtesy Science History Institute, Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons)

What sounds simple is anything but. These are religious times, dangerous to those who pray or think in unapproved ways; and with Cromwell’s protectorate recently ended, and the Stuarts restored to the throne, suspicion and conspiracy abound. Heed ye these controversies well, gentle reader, for they shape not only what Signor da Cola witnesses, but how others view him, his manuscript, and the events he describes.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a strongly feminist novel, but by demonstration, not by soapbox. The woman most central to the story possesses a breadth of mind and character surpassing those of anyone else, to which Pears never calls undue attention. Yet how she behaves arouses suspicion, which raises a crucial theme, how men perceive women through the lens of their own weaknesses.

During his sojourn in England, da Cola shows his kind heart, good-natured disposition, ready laugh, and — within the bounds of seventeenth-century attitudes — tolerant outlook. All that makes him a perfect foil for the disagreeable, smug, hidebound, and cruel Englishmen he meets (many of whom are historical figures). His narrative provides an often cheeky commentary, as when he sums up what he sees and judges it freely:

I discovered that, in only a brief space of time, the atmosphere of Oxford has settled on me, rendering me as melancholic as most of its inhabitants. There is something about the place; a dampness which is oppressive to the spirits, which bears down powerfully on the soul. I have for long had a theory about the weather which, if God spares me, I would like to develop one day. I do believe that the weather and grayness of the climate will forever preclude the English for making much of a stir in the world, unless they abandon their island for more sunny climes. Transport them to the Americas or the Indies, and their character is such that they could rule the world; leave them where they are, and they are doomed to sink in lassitude.

However, when da Cola’s narrative breaks off, other witnesses to the same events narrate their view and take great exception to his manuscript. I don’t mean their counterattacks on his character, which confirm their hatred of foreigners, their gloominess, and much else he remarked on. Rather, the Venetian gentleman seems not to have told the truth. The question is why.

The other voices respond to that and much else, recasting the murder by their own lights, as they justify themselves, often with a semblance of truth, but perhaps not. You don’t know whom to believe, or about what. Not only does the narrative framework recall the great Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which a presumably clear-cut criminal act becomes murky when viewed from different perspectives, Pears raises “no — and furthermore” to its most psychologically penetrating form. Just when you think you might grasp how the murder and investigation unfolded, you don’t — though maybe there’s a piece of evidence, viewed differently, that makes sense. And that one piece won’t go away.

Readers of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose will recognize similarities here (as reviewers noted when Fingerpost came out). Crime and its repercussions become inseparable from the way people perceive good and evil, or what it means to think and observe, not to mention how ready they are to detest each other for petty differences in religious doctrine. Like Eco too, Pears renders political, social, and intellectual attitudes with such sureness that you don’t doubt him for a second.

An Instance of the Fingerpost is an enthralling mystery and a chilling exploration of the vicious potential of the human mind.

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

Hiding, Sometimes in Plain Sight: A Thread of Grace

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Review: A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2005. 442 pp. $17

It’s September 1943, and Italy has just surrendered to the Allies. Though that brings the war’s end one step closer, it puts in jeopardy thousands of Jews from all over Europe who’ve somehow eluded the executioners and migrated to southern France, where Italian troops have protected them. Since the surrender has destroyed that protection, most of the fugitives attempt to flee, and, for tens of thousands, northwest Italy becomes the next stage of their clandestine existence.

Sant’Andrea, a town in Liguria, scrambles to hide those who seek shelter there, a task that couldn’t be more dangerous. Not only have the Germans invaded Italy, they’ve sent crack troops to hold the line, the Waffen SS, who’ve terrorized much of Europe. Anyone who aids or harbors “rebels,” “terrorists,” or Jews will be executed, and the neighboring area will suffer reprisals.

The Memoriale della Shoah in the Milan train station of Jews deported during the Holocaust (2014 photo courtesy fcarbonara via Wikimedia Commons)

To recount the story further would be pointless and misleading, for it’s simply one “no — and furthermore” after another, a big, sprawling narrative from many perspectives, exploring as many themes. Like Italy, A Thread of Grace is warm, dramatic, good company, passionate, and a bumpy, sometimes uneven, ride, not that I care. Among other issues, Russell sifts through shades of good versus those of evil, demonstrating how telling them apart is always difficult. Her narrative discourses on killing, and whether it’s ever justifiable; what true religious faith demands; how to live, not merely exist, when you must hide; and what courage is.

But above all, Russell’s characters propel this novel. My favorite is Renzo Leoni, former pilot who fought in Ethiopia and lives in liquor because of it. He’s Jewish, yet he hides in plain sight, adopting different personae, testament to his bravery, quick thinking, and ingenuity. Sometimes he’s a German-speaking businessman who chats up the sister of the local Gestapo chief to obtain information. Other times, he’s a tradesman or a priest, whichever guise seems safest at the moment to let him visit resistance contacts. He’s also a cantankerous, exceptionally witty son who has legendary fights with his mother, dialogue that is often howlingly funny. Perhaps Renzo’s greatest gift is his ability to befriend anyone, even a Waffen SS doctor who seeks an exit from the war so he can die in relative peace from TB.

Other notables include Suora Marta, a nun so imperious that a priest of her acquaintance jokes to himself that she outranks the pope. There’s Iacopo, the rabbi for Sant’Andrea, who’s so busy helping everyone else, he neglects his own family. There’s another priest, missing part of his leg from the First World War, who makes sure Jews are welcome and cared for, though he slyly hopes to bring one or two of the ebrei into the Church.

A Thread of Grace is the fourth of Russell’s novels I’ve reviewed, and this one bears her trademark grasp of historical detail. All descriptions show activity, even of a supposedly static landscape, which livens the narrative and makes admirable storytelling:

Wrung out by five minutes’ effort fueled by a diet of poor-quality starch, spring chard, and not much else, Suora Corniglia leans against a terrace wall to muster strength and catch her breath. Beside her, tiny brown lizards dart into crevices between stones. Fig trees bake in the basil-scented warmth above meticulously attended vineyards that crisscross the hillside. The Mediterranean is a stripe of silver between gray-green foothills, and when the wind shifts, the astringency of pine from nearby mountains is replaced by the barest hint of salt and seaweed.

If you’re like me, you may wonder, here and there, whether no Italian Christian ever turned in a Jew. But in her afterword, the author insists her depiction is true to life, having found no instances of any such betrayals in her six years of research. (That may be true of northwest Italy, but elsewhere presents a mixed picture.) Regardless, I appreciate her portrayal of Jewish characters, who seem genuine, down to the refusal to eat a biscuit during Passover, and their outlook on the world, schooled by hard experience. Once or twice, they may break character in small ways, but A Thread of Grace sets the bar very high for Holocaust fiction, both in that regard, and others.

One way in which it does concerns how the author hews closely to reality. The novel encompasses almost two years of war, and if the Italian populace does its best to protect those in hiding, the Germans do their best to find the fugitives, kill them, and take revenge. Murder and torture mark this story, not just kindness and generosity.

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

Painter in the Snake Pit: The Creation of Eve

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Review: The Creation of Eve, by Lynn Cullen
Putnam, 2010. 392 pp. $17

When Sofonisba Anguissola yields to long temptation and has a passionate encounter with an artist colleague, she has much to lose. For one thing, Rome in 1559 is hardly the place for a woman to risk her reputation. For another, as a painter, Sofi has dared sign her canvases “the virgin,” partly out of pride in her dedication to her craft, partly to protect herself as a woman in a male profession. No more. As she says in the first sentence of this remarkable, compelling novel, “In the time it takes to pluck a hen, I have ruined myself.”

Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1556 self-portrait (courtesy Łańcut Castle, Łańcut, Poland, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the United States)

However, as the daughter of a petty aristocrat, Sofi’s not without resources, and her talent has received notice. No less a figure than Michelangelo himself has tutored her—which is how she met Tiberio, her lover, also the maestro’s student—and though she must now hide herself, she’s got a place to go. On the strength of drawings she’s made, Sofi receives an invitation from the court of Felipe II of Spain to teach painting to his new bride, Elisabeth of Valois, and be her lady-in-waiting. In that capacity, Sofi attends the royal wedding at Guadalajara, after which her adventure begins:

For this reason, I suffered to trundle these last two days over stony Castilian roads from Madrid, in a coach jammed with eight chatting perfumed Spanish ladies clutching their shawls and their small-bladdered dogs, with Francesca [her maid and chaperone] cutting her eyes accusingly at the pups each time we hit a bump. After a night four-to-a-bed with these ladies and their female companions at an inn along the way, I can assure you that the lapdog’s ability to draw fleas away from its owner is highly overesteemed.

As the quotation suggests, Cullen has given her protagonist a delightful, alluring voice and superbly re-created time, place, and manners, an atmosphere sustained throughout. You expect the novel to focus on feminist issues, notably the double standard regarding honor and purity, which the narrative handles with skill, in multiple facets and circumstances. As king, Felipe may have his mistresses, but if Elisabeth, who’s only fourteen, so much as smiles at the noblemen who fawn on her, look out. As a foreigner herself and a strong woman, Sofi becomes the queen’s trusted confidante.

Look out, again. Raising a foreigner of comparatively low birth to such a position makes enemies, and those who have been displaced put Sofi on notice. But they’re not the greatest danger. Felipe’s sister Juana, a marvelously insidious character, would like nothing better than to destroy Elisabeth and sees the upstart artist as a pawn in that game. Not only does Dona Juana question Sofi closely about Michelangelo, now under fire for his rumored homosexuality and his “degenerate” fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which the Church is considering painting over (!), the king’s sister makes sure that Spain’s inquisitor-general asks Sofi about these as well. Further, Dona Juana seems to know about Tiberio, from whom Sofi has waited, in vain, for a letter declaring his love and willingness to marry her.

So “no—and furthermore” flourish here. I admire how Cullen weaves art, feminism, palace cabals, politics, and sex, moving confidently among historical figures. She casts Felipe II as a more rounded person than he’s often portrayed, capturing his stiffness while revealing his love for gardening and tenderness as a father. I’m also glad to know about Sofonisba Anguissola, having heard only of Artemisia Gentileschi as a female painter of the time, though the former came first by several decades. I like Cullen’s rendering of the royals, but the real show-stopper is Catherine de Medici, Elisabeth’s mother, whom the Spanish queen visits once in France. You understand immediately why, as a child, Elisabeth preferred her father’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, as a mother figure.

The way Sofi becomes privy to certain secrets sometimes stretches credulity, but not to the point of utter contrivance. The lone historical inaccuracy that sticks out concerns the potato’s presence in the royal gardens, which wouldn’t have happened then (if ever, in that era); but I know that only because I wrote a book about it.

More serious is Cullen’s assertion, in her afterword, that Felipe II is wrongly considered to embody the Inquisition, and that contemporary versions elsewhere (see, for example: Mary Tudor) killed more people. That may or may not show Felipe in a more favorable light. But to suggest that the Spanish Inquisition has an exaggeratedly evil reputation because of contemporary chroniclers relegates a great crime to a body count. Fernando and Isabella’s expulsion of Jews and Moors in 1492 and the persecutions of converts afterward attempted to eradicate cultures that had enriched Spain. I think that outdoes Bloody Mary.

My long-time readers may recall that I reviewed one of Cullen’s more recent novels, The Sisters of Summit Avenue, set in the depression-era Midwest, a narrative about sibling rivalry, populated with excellent characterizations. Her authorial range impresses me; and though that story is closer to home, I actually prefer The Creation of Eve. Read both.

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

Portrait of a Gentleman: The Master

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Review: The Master, by Colm Toíbín
Scribner, 2004. 339 pp. $17

Around the turn of the twentieth century, two famous brothers, Henry and William James, converse in Henry’s seaside home in Rye, East Sussex. William, philosopher, psychologist, and lecturer (in public life and private), says, “Harry, I find I have to read innumerable sentences you now write twice over to see what they could possibly mean. In this crowded and hurried reading age you will remain unread and neglected as long as you continue to indulge in this style and these subjects.”

Even — especially — as an admirer of Henry James, I have to laugh. I used to share William’s criticism of his brother’s prose, as probably many readers do today. But in this biographical novel of an author perhaps more closely attuned to social nuance and unspoken truth than any other of English expression, James’s world opens up with impressive clarity, poignancy, and depth. You see how the master thinks, observes, derives his fictions, absorbs tragedy and setbacks and — always tentatively — ventures beyond himself, almost invariably to retreat.

The great writer as a boy alongside his father, Henry, Sr., whose influence loomed large. From an 1854 daguerrotype by Mathew Brady (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Consequently, The Master delivers the story of how a writer’s mind works, the stuff that anyone who writes will recognize — the bits of life that beg to be set down, impatience for tiresome guests to depart so that you can get to work, the pains of failure, the glories when a reader picks up your work for the first time and tells you how much she likes it. (Notice how long my sentences are getting; be it known that Toíbín’s aren’t, for he hasn’t tried to write James, only about him.) But there’s much more, for Toíbín focuses on how a man who observes so keenly often remains an observer, and why. James’s fear of emotional entrapment conveys a figure who feels constantly under siege, though he might not say so. He worries that the world he knows is fast disappearing.

There’s little plot in The Master, yet there’s much activity, all laden with meaning. As the novel begins in 1895, Henry tries to circumvent his anxieties about the first performance of his play in London by attending a nearby theater showing Oscar Wilde’s comic drama, An Ideal Husband. James, who could be a prig, finds Wilde’s work completely vulgar and resents his success, more so after his own play fails miserably. But months later, when Wilde sues his lover’s father for slander over accusations of homosexuality, James takes a renewed interest in Wilde. It’s not schadenfreude but the first intimation that James has homosexual attractions and desires he’s never acted on.

Throughout, Toíbín handles that theme with the delicacy befitting his protagonist. How sad that this man, whose instincts are kindly and sensitive, who has many friends who clamor for his company, who understands children and easily befriends them, suppresses the longing that might have made him happier. Granted, no one’s more keenly aware of societal disapproval and pressure than Henry James, yet you sense that tact and discretion might have permitted more leeway than he allows himself.

But Toíbín also reveals Henry’s less attractive facets, such as his selfish refusal to help a couple dear friends in dire need. Or, earlier in his life, how his parents somehow decide the Civil War has nothing to do with him—startling, considering that the Jameses are staunch New England abolitionists, as are their friends. Two of Henry’s brothers enlist and serve as officers in a famous Black regiment; one is grievously wounded.

Those failures point to how his parents have arranged Henry’s life for him (and William’s, to some extent), though it’s Henry who never escapes that confinement. As he muses over the body of his only, beloved sister, who’s just died, he realizes what a circumscribed life they have both led:

Her face changed as the light changed. She seemed young and old, exhausted and quite utterly beautiful. . . . He and his sister would die childless; what they owned was theirs only while they lived. There would be no direct heirs. They had both recoiled from engagements, deep companionship, the warmth of love. They had never wanted it. He felt they had both been banished, sent into exile, left alone, while their siblings had married and their parents had followed one another into death. Sadly and tenderly, he touched her cold, composed hands.

The Master may not be for everybody. But you don’t have to be a fan of Henry James to appreciate its breadth and poignancy.

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

War, Destroyer of Souls: Three Day Road

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Review: Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden
Penguin, 2005. 368 pp. $17

Toward the end of this harrowing novel about the First World War, a soldier narrator remarks, “We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy.”

So says Xavier Bird, thinking of his boyhood friend and brother in arms, Elijah Whiskeyjack. Neither name actually belongs to them, for they are Cree, a Native people of Canada, and white people have bestowed those handles on them. Likewise, the prejudice the two friends face in the ranks of the Southern Ontario Rifles runs deep, embodied in their insecure, less-than-capable immediate superior, Lieutenant Breech, who views them as alien to begin with, though with gradations that fit his convenience.

Photo of a nighttime German barrage on Allied lines, believed to be Canadian troops at Ypres, 1915 (courtesy On the Fringe of the Great Fight by Colonel George G. Nasmith, C.M.G. Mcclelland, Goodchild & Stewart Toronto 1917, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in the United States)

Or separate them, rather, to Elijah’s frequent gratification and Xavier’s constant pain. Xavier grew up in the backwoods, but after his mother’s death when he was very young, attended a repressive religious school until his aunt, Niska, rescued him. Elijah, whom he met there, came to live with them later, and Xavier taught him all the backwoods skills he has. They became skilled hunters, and at the front, they conduct the ultimate hunt — or Elijah does, anyway. Hence Xavier’s remark about reckoning with what one does to the enemy.

But that’s not where Three Day Road starts, for better or worse. The novel begins with Xavier, one leg amputated and addicted to morphine, coming home to a heart-stricken Niska. She believes he’s returned intending to die; and since she doesn’t know what he saw or did in France, she’s unsure what will help him.

I admire Niska’s resolve, dedication, and passionate attachment to her threatened way of life and her sister’s only child. Much of her narrative has to do with hardship and sacrifice, with rare pleasure cut short by betrayal. In that way, her existence parallels the soldiers’, a touch I like. The blind hatred she endures whenever she ventures into or near town etches a sharp criticism of the white men who presume superiority to her.

However, she recounts many scenes while Xavier is asleep, under the influence of morphine, or just plain silent. Such interior monologues feel like set pieces shoved into the story for the information they contain. I imagine that Boyden might have wrestled with where to put these scenes, because nearly all take place well before the war and would have hampered the main narrative had they appeared chronologically. Caught between that constraint, Xavier’s understandable reluctance to speak about the unspeakable, and his nearly constant self-medication, the author does his best with Niska’s memories. They just don’t always fit seamlessly.

But Boyden superbly re-creates the First World War, in the trenches and behind the lines, some of the most impressive descriptions of that subject I’ve ever read. Nothing purple, just plain, straight, and spot on:

Once the shelling has gone quiet, we make our way out and survey the damage. I’m surprised to see that very little looks different than it did before. There is the same mud and puddles and torn-up wagons and piles of bricks. The only real difference is the bitter smell of cordite and the sweeter smell of blood that is as rich in the air as if we’d just butchered a large moose.

I also like how Boyden has the two friends’ paths diverge, and what he does with that. Xavier’s the better marksman and tracker, though Elijah’s no slouch, and they’re both assigned to sniper duty. But Elijah speaks better English, knows how to joke, and to put himself forward, so he gets the glory. Using the Cree language, unique to them, he protects Xavier in public from Lieutenant Breech’s ornery mindlessness when he can, because he understands the white man’s insecurity. But he doesn’t share the credit for the sniper exploits, and that burns Xavier more than he’s willing to admit.

The weak link in the novel is the lieutenant, a clichéd depiction and historical anomaly. Junior officers were taught to show courage under fire to the point of recklessness and suffered higher casualty rates, on average, than enlisted men. But Breech almost never faces German bullets, a fault that his superiors would have noticed, and he’s got enough flaws as it is. Had Boyden allowed him personal bravery, the lieutenant would have seemed truer. Likewise, the two noncommissioned officers Elijah and Xavier know come across as types, the salt-of-the-earth core of any army, though each has skills that make them interesting.

Finally, since the narrative revolves around what’s essentially a squad, lack of other officers makes it seem as if Breech commands an entire company, not a platoon. Again, I understand the desire for economy, but I get a skewed, conflated picture of their battles, as the lens expands to set the stage for famous engagements, only to telescope to almost nothing.

Nevertheless, Three Day Road not only provides a glimpse of the Native contribution to Canada’s war, a subject I’ve never read about before, as a trench novel, it’s terrific.

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

Blame the Woman: No Small Shame

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Review: No Small Shame, by Christine Bell
Impact, 2020. 396 pp. AU $33

When fifteen-year-old Mary O’Donnell emigrates from Scotland to Australia in 1914, besides the promise of a more prosperous life, she’s hoping to taste a thin wedge of freedom, like a good pie — and to be reunited with her childhood crush, Liam Merrilees. But there’s precious little money waiting in this sparse landscape for Mary or her family, Further, Liam has lost the fire in his eyes, though not his self-involvement. When he’s not being outright brutal toward Mary, he shows absolutely no interest in her, but she’s the only one who can’t see it. She’s used to being kicked. Mary’s mother has bruised her all her life, and not just emotionally; daughter accepts this as her lot.

From this premise, you can predict where the narrative will go most of the time. You know that Mary won’t give up on Liam, that mother will never stop ripping into her, and that vile prophecies will bear fruit, evoking more than one trope. Yet the novel works, more or less, because Mary struggles to slip between the Catholic hellfire her mother has taught her to fear and the life she’s dreamed of leading. Her awakening from masochism won’t happen overnight, nor will the world spin any differently for it, but Mary’s interior journey is far less ordained than her exterior one.

The background fits too. First World War Australia, though distant from both Gallipoli and the Western Front, where its volunteers have gone, has its own battlegrounds, starting with that word volunteer. The country has no conscription, but the number of white feathers handed out to able-bodied men not in uniform, based on the grotesque assumption that real men never shirk a fight, takes a heavy emotional toll, on Liam as on others. The lengthy casualty lists don’t seem to make a dent, either; if some men have been slaughtered, it’s up to the rest to avenge them, even if nobody really knows concretely what the war’s about. Throw in wartime price inflation, the wages that haven’t kept pace, and strife between Catholic and Protestant, you’ve got quite a vortex of problems. Incidentally, Mary’s mother relishes the religious conflict, in her perverse way. She’s a piece of work.

I like this aspect of No Small Shame, the everyday burdens that twist life in ways that no one could have imagined when the trumpets sounded. Not least are the burdens that women bear, silently and without question, for it’s their job to make sure their men are happy and feel supported, no matter what sacrifice that entails. And you guessed it: Mary takes the brunt, though she’s not alone.

Bell’s prose is simple yet effective, as with Mary’s first glimpse of her new home:

Where were the fabulous fields and plump livestock waiting for lads and farmers promised by the immigration agent in Motherwell offering assisted passages to sunny Australia? All Mary could see extending beyond the train windows was blade after blade of grass bleached colourless as sand in a desert. The poor animals in the endless paddocks were without a leaf of shade or drip of water. She couldn’t guess how any of them survived.

Less convincing, I find, are the characterizations. Maw, her mother, is well drawn. As for Mary, it’s not easy to portray a slow transformation to selfhood, and Bell succeeds, mostly, barring shaky instances that don’t quite make sense to me. Liam, though predictable, has edges. He’s never learned to move past self-pity or reckon with who he is, and though he wants to do better, he can’t. Unfortunately, the reader knows what Mary doesn’t, that he’ll never change. I wish Bell hadn’t tried to redeem him, which I don’t believe, and which I think actually demeans his stature, renders him less tragic.

The children in these pages are idealized, not like any I’ve ever met. Ditto Tom, a Protestant friend of Mary’s who holds a candle for her, which she’s remarkably slow to recognize. He’s a nice guy and treats her kindly, but he’s cardboard, and since he’s crucial to the story, his opacity hurts the narrative. As a man with a medical condition that prevents him from enlisting, he embodies the shame men feel, just as Mary represents women that way. That’s not enough.

Nevertheless, despite these objections, I should point out how unusual No Small Shame is among First World War novels with a female protagonist, a narrow field to begin with. Mary’s neither nurse nor bandage roller nor factory worker nor her country’s soul, keeping the home fires burning. I like that. For that reason, you may find this novel worth reading.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the author through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.