What a Woman Knows: Lilli de Jong

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Review: Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton
Doubleday, 2017. 335 pp. $27

This riveting debut novel shows how quickly and thoroughly a woman’s life may unravel, to which the only responses must be fortitude, will, and, at times, subterfuges of which men know nothing — and don’t wish to know. In 1883, twenty-two-year-old Lilli de Jong loses her mother to untimely death, whereupon this Philadelphia family of plain-speaking, plain-living Quakers falls apart. Her father, a selfish, irascible furniture maker of great stubbornness and little foresight, takes to drink, upsetting the Friends elders, and he compounds the felony by inviting his cousin, Patience, into his home and bed. That gets him expelled from the local meeting, and Lilli from her teaching job at the Friends’ school.

Then her suitor and brother, having had enough of the furniture shop and its cantankerous master, go seek their fortunes in the Pittsburgh steel mills, leaving Lilli friendless and vulnerable. What’s more, the night before her departure, Johan, the boyfriend, makes her pregnant. Three men have therefore done what men so often do, shielded from responsibility or ostracism, while a woman takes the shame, the burden, and the calumny, visible to all.
Lilli talks her way into a charitable home for expecting, unwed mothers, by no means a happy place, though she realizes she could have suffered much worse:

After stirring hot vats of laundry, wringing out the steaming cloths, and hanging them on lines; after scrubbing floors on our knees, helping Cook peel potatoes and knead heaps of dough, wiping away the grime that falls to every surface from the city air, and unpacking crates of donated supplies left at the back gate, we should want nothing more than rest. But without work to occupy us, our minds wander to places of uncertainty and dread. Better to sit in an upholstered chair, lean toward the orb of a gas lamp in the parlor, and draw a brightly threaded needle in and out of a dish towel or an apron. Better to form lovely flowers than to consider that the promise of our youth has bloomed and died.

Mrs. G. W. Clark’s Open Door, home for unwed mothers, which opened in Omaha in 1892 (courtesy University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research and http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/peattie/ep.owh.cha.0005.html)

But the charity assumes — nay, almost demands — that these women give up their newborns for adoption. And when the time comes, Lilli refuses, unaware of the terrors, hardships, and exploitation that await but adamant that she won’t abandon her little daughter, Charlotte, flesh of her flesh, as others have abandoned her.

I love this premise, the inverse of so many novels in which a mother gives up a child, and either party tries to reconnect later. Not that there’s anything wrong with such stories, but consider the immediacy, the elegant, hard-edged simplicity of Benton’s approach. Her protagonist has an infant crying for milk, but Lilli has no money, no food for herself, and nowhere to live; meanwhile, she’s looked upon as a whore, vagrant, or juicy target. That predicament, which Lilli periodically escapes and falls back into, creates more electricity than your average hydro plant. Her conscience, developed from a young age and schooled in the Friends’ outlook, pushes against her needs constantly, and she struggles to do the right thing.

Consequently, Benton need not strain to place obstacles in Lilli’s way, for the world is stacked against her, and the “no — and furthermores” flow as naturally as a river. For instance, when Lilli reluctantly leaves Charlotte with a wet nurse and hires herself out in the same capacity to a wealthy family, you can probably imagine a few problems, such as the lascivious, unhappy master of the house. But furthermore, you have the doctor who must approve her position and whose half-educated word is law, and the myriad, uncountable ways in which the mistress of the house humiliates her.

Lilli narrates her story through diary entries, and though I like her voice and simple style, I wonder whether she could have written so fluidly. For a young woman who has read only those books that contain useful information and little or no fiction — her parents obeyed the stricture of plainness in all ways — Lilli has a highly polished pen that never hunts for a word or a thought. Benton wants to write a coherent novel, and no one can object to that, yet because the narration is so articulate, it doesn’t always feel contemporaneous with the action, as though Lilli writes years later. To credit Benton’s storytelling, however, this never occurred to me until I finished the book.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help noticing that Charlotte at times seems more like a four-or five-month-old infant than a newborn. That’s not a deal-breaker, except that I had to stop and think about my own children when they were infants, which took me out of the story. The plethora of exclamation points also puts me off, a bad editorial decision for several reasons, not least pushing a sober-minded, nineteenth-century young woman used to self-discipline too far toward a modern-day schoolgirl tearing a passion to tatters. Lilli’s story needs no adornment, any more than she needs (or would think to use) lipstick and rouge. At its best, which is very good indeed, Lilli de Jong delivers a powerful moral tale from simple, basic elements.

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

In the Madman’s Court: Wolf on a String

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Review: Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black
Holt, 2017. 306 pp. $28

As the year 1599 draws to a close, an impoverished German scholar named Christian Stern has wangled an introduction to the Prague court of Rudolph II, king of Hungary and Bohemia, archduke of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor. Called eccentric by some, mad by others — in whispers, of course — Rudolph shows more interest in magic and alchemy than in governing. Christian has read widely in the occult arts and considers them hogwash, but he’s willing to play the happy acolyte to ingratiate himself with His Majesty in hopes of patronage for natural philosophy—science–like the emperor’s other hirelings, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1591 painting of Rudolf II as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, growth, plants, and fruit. The emperor liked the portrayal (courtesy Skokloster Castle, Sweden, via Wikimedia Commons)

The chestnut about being careful what you wish for applies here. No sooner has Christian entered Prague than he stumbles across a corpse of a young woman dressed in a velvet gown, wearing a gold medallion around her neck. Robbery can’t be the motive, and her attire suggests she’s well born. But when he brings the death to official attention, to his surprise, he’s beaten and imprisoned for the crime:

Bells in countless churches were tolling the hour; it seemed to me I had never in my life heard so bleak and comfortless a sound. The thought came slithering into my defenseless consciousness that I might never be released from this foul dungeon, unless it was to be taken out on a freezing midwinter morning much like this one and marched to some grimy corner of the castle keep and made to kneel there with my neck on the block, where my last sight of this world would be that of the hooded headsman testing the edge of his blade with a thick thumb.

Luckily, Rudolph smiles on Christian, and he’s released, but not to serve justice or kindness or logic. Rather, the emperor believes in a prophecy that a “new star,” a sign of good fortune, will cross the firmament. Who better than someone named Christian Stern (Stern means “star” in German) to represent these glad tidings? And there could be no better way to prove his worth than to solve the murder; the victim was the court physician’s daughter, one of Rudolph’s mistresses. Besides, the emperor can’t trust anybody else. Christian implicitly understands that the killing has immense political implications, though, as a newcomer, he has no way to know where they lead.

“To the gallows,” replies just about everyone he talks to, most of whom make no secret of their desire to see him swing. Christian can never tell whether their animosity results from his exceedingly rapid rise, how they perceive their self-interest, plain viciousness, or a combination of all three. All he can see is that he’s stumbled into a power struggle between Felix Wenzel, His Majesty’s high steward and the official who had him arrested, and Philipp Lang, the subtle, devious high chamberlain. Allying himself to either may well be fatal, but the day will come when Christian must choose sides. His predicament causes frank amusement among the courtiers, spiced by his amorous adventures, which, though risky, are common knowledge. How pleasant to be the source of merriment.

Black, a pseudonym for John Banville, the famous novelist, has told a gripping story whose tension never flags, and which has the ring of literary and historical truth, even though he made most of it up. He’s captured the timeless tale of a young man on the make, and this one’s so dazzled by the money, finery, and sexual favors on offer that he’s distracted from his task to solve the murder, a loss of focus that seems true to life. Christian has some leeway in that Rudolf’s easily distracted too, but that won’t last forever, and the mercurial emperor’s whims must be honored. Black has also re-created Prague in all its filth, lice, mud, grandeur, cruelty, and hardship, which puts you in the narrative and doesn’t let go.

The title comes from a remark by Kepler, who appears in a marvelous cameo, full of braggadocio and insight. He explains to Christian that if you bow a violin in precisely the wrong way — a remote likelihood for a skilled musician, yet still possible — you produce a sound like a wolf. What a perfect metaphor for Christian’s situation, potentially sublime yet fated to evoke a terrifying threat with only the slightest misstep. Black never lets his protagonist — or the reader — forget that.

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

Romanian Tragedy: The Girl They Left Behind

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Review: The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos
Atria, 2018. 353 pp. $27

One horrific night in January 1941, police and paramilitaries in Bucharest drag thousands of Jews from their homes and murder them. A young couple, fearing the worst, abandons their not-quite-four-year-old daughter in hope that someone will take her in. Someone does; and through great good fortune and personal connections, a childless couple, Anton and Despina Goza, adopt her and name her Natalia. Even better, adoptive parents and child make a practically seamless fit, and, for better and worse, Natalia remembers no other life, no other family.

Luckier yet, the Gozas have a happy home, despite wartime shortages, bombing raids, and the German presence that comes with being a Nazi satellite. Anton has a successful stationery business, built by hard work and an abundant reservoir of personal warmth, and the Gozas want for very little. Natalia even has a piano to play, at which she seems a young virtuoso. Ironically, the real troubles begin after the war’s end, when the Soviets come to Romania. Stalin’s men intend to root out “bourgeois counterrevolutionaries,” as in anyone who’s got two pennies to rub together. That puts the Gozas in the crosshairs.

Bucharest, late 1930s, Bratianu and Magheru boulevards (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain

How this drama plays out is the greatest strength of The Girl They Left Behind. Veletzos excels at scenes revealing the nitty-gritty of Soviet rule — the uniformed thugs who “inspect” private homes for signs of wealth; the joyless, muzzled schoolroom; the several families packed into one apartment, with a Party informer in their midst. Natalia’s past, though not unique in Holocaust literature, packs a punch too, and the reckoning you know is coming hangs over the narrative like a storm cloud.

Unfortunately, I think Veletzos could have allowed a full-fledged hurricane and derived even more power from it. One wind that never even gets a chance to blow concerns Natalia’s reaction to her private discovery (which happens in very contrived fashion) that she’s adopted. Though surprised, she shuts the news from her mind, which seems rather nonchalant, especially for a teenager, who’d likely be trying to figure out who she is. She never asks herself (or anyone else) who the fugitives might have been, though she knows the date of her abandonment and could have put two and two together. It’s as though Veletzos, having evoked the Holocaust, wishes to leave that behind, like the girl.

Later, when Natalia understands the complete story, she still fails to plumb that aspect of herself. But even without reflecting on her Jewish heritage, she’d surely imagine who her birth parents might have been, why they fled, and what sort of blood runs in her veins. She might also ask why her adoptive parents never told her. But Natalia never holds onto criticism of them, only about others.

Then again, the narrative idealizes Anton and Despina. Consider this first description of him:

Despina could not help thinking that he looked handsome in his striped silk pajamas, even at this early hour, his short-cropped hair rumpled, the faint smell of last night’s whiskey still on his breath. He began brushing his teeth, humming a tune to himself. Sometimes his boundless optimism rattled her a little, but it was part of his charm. And her husband was certainly a man blessed with undeniable charm.… It wasn’t just her on whom Anton had this effect but practically everyone who knew him. His lightness of being was infectious, irresistible. Women turned their heads as he passed them on the street, looking like Cary Grant in his suits tailored to perfection, a white angora scarf draped over his broad shoulders…

Sounds like someone I’d like to meet, yet surely Anton would show a blemish once in a while, especially given the stress of war and two foreign occupations. Despina’s messier, but in a clumsy way, toward mania — first, as a woman desperate for a child, and then as a fiercely protective, almost lunatic, mother. Why does such intense maternal love in fiction so often require screaming fits or cold, manipulative silences? Grief and passion feel more authentic when they’re not histrionic. What’s more, the portrayal strikes me as antifeminist, as though we can only understand such an overwhelming attachment through hysteria. M. L. Stedman made the same mistake in her otherwise excellent novel, The Light between Oceans, so I don’t mean to single Veletzos out. In both cases, though, I think a flaw other than craziness would have served better.

If The Girl They Left Behind sometimes seems predictable, that’s partly a function of the story, which sets up certain expectations and delivers too reliably, and partly because of characters who react the way they have before. That’s why I like the scenes you can’t anticipate, like those describing Soviet rule; and since I knew very little about Romania before I read the novel, I drank all that in. What could have been a powerful, unforgettable story fails to rise above the poignant, but for some readers, that will be enough.

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

Saving Your Life (and the World): The Lake on Fire

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Review: The Lake on Fire, by Rosellen Brown
Sarabande, 2018. 349 pp. $18

Why in the world is a group of Ruthenian Jews from Zhitomir trying to homestead in Wisconsin? That’s the question Chaya-Libbe Shadarowsky asks herself, and by the time she’s seventeen, in 1891, she’s come to a few conclusions. So when her parents pull her out of the school she loves, which has expanded her outlook and given her hope, and plan to marry her off within the community, she must make an excruciating choice.

Chaya loved her parents and felt their difficulties — her mother breathed for them, she was their pulsing machine. She admired her father for the dignity of his commitments. He was a man who bled for others, who ought to have been given a chance to work for the well-being of strangers. But they were living someone else’s life, she was certain of that. Driven to improve their chances, they had chosen wrong, and were covered with the dust of failing farmers. They seemed to attract catastrophe — the rain that soaked the hay before they got it in, the calf that strangled in the womb and could not be pulled out until its poor mother expired, the wind — so harsh it could not be measured — that took down the chimney pipe and let the rain flood in and soak the quilts and bother the babies. Each, if you traced it back a few steps, was the result of their incompetence.

She dreams of escape though she has no money, a struggling grasp of English, and no idea what she could do to keep body and soul together. But Chaya is nothing if not resourceful, and when she makes it to Chicago, her ten-year-old brother, Asher, unexpectedly tags along. His presence delights her, for she loves him more than anyone, yet also terrifies her, and not just because she now must support two people on invisible means. He’s ungovernable, and his impulsive nature, which seeks unfamiliar words and experience, renders him incapable of understanding obstacles, especially other people’s feelings or private property. Though Chaya worries he’ll be arrested for petty theft, the notion that her little brother might be a sociopath or harbor deep rage never occurs to her.

Both siblings bend their talents to social protest. Asher scrambles for a living as sneak thief and wunderkind and befriends the men building the World’s Columbian Exposition, due to open in 1893. With inequality visible on every corner, he becomes a political radical, whereas Chaya, committed to working within the system, crosses paths with Jane Addams and other social reformers from the higher classes. The juxtaposition poses the chief question of The Lake on Fire: Once you see oppression and suffering, how do you respond?

The novel explores several answers, each of which finds representation in a particular character or characters, achieving a universality in the particular. That’s not so unusual; more remarkable is how Brown proceeds with such subtlety that no one, ever, sounds like a talking head. The Lake on Fire therefore offers a primer on characterization, and it’s a demanding art. Brown takes her time, because she wants you to see everything she does and enter her narrative. This is what literary fiction aspires to, painstaking vividness that feels effortless. Readers who assume that portraying physical background, feelings, and character to such an extent must inevitably be highbrow or boring don’t know what they’re missing.

However, the unhurried approach works only because Brown constantly introduces the unexpected through the characters’ reactions, particularly to unforeseen intrusions that no one else would notice, but which mean the world to them. It could be a strange-looking dog on a railroad station platform, a manner of dress, the weather, an odor that carries particular associations, but they all spark a search for meaning and keep the reader close. Once or twice, I wanted the internal narrative to stop, and the external one to resume. But this wasn’t because the story bored me, only that I’d gotten the point, and the tension made me impatient.

More seriously, Asher gets under my skin in the wrong way. After a while, he becomes hard to like, and though I don’t demand liking in fiction, the reasons I dislike him — his self-absorption and lack of empathy — evaporate when it’s thematically inconvenient. If he’s unempathic in general, how does he wind up caring so much about the downtrodden men whom the city gobbles up and spits out? Chaya, usually so clear-eyed, seems to overlook or forgive her brother’s bad behavior on reflex and wonders why others can’t. Her stubbornness paints her (and the author) into a corner, the outlet from which strikes the only contrived note in the book.

Still, The Lake on Fire bowled me over, a splendid example of what literary fiction can be.

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

Blood and Money: House of Gold

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Review: House of Gold, by Natasha Solomons
Putnam, 2018. 433 pp. $26

Greta Goldbaum, a spirited young woman in 1911 Vienna who thinks nothing of going barefoot when her shoes pinch or contesting conventions that make no sense to her, dreams of choosing her own life. Alas, Vienna’s no place for free spirits, nor is the Goldbaum family the type to tolerate them. As international bankers (patterned after the Rothschilds), the Goldbaums have branches in various European capitals, connected by blood ties, common interests, and a remarkable network of couriers. So it is that distant Goldbaum cousins traditionally intermarry, which is why Greta has been betrothed to her kinsman Albert, in London, whom she’s never met. Neither of them has any say in the match.

But that doesn’t mean Greta has to like her bridegroom, or vice versa, and from her point of view, there’s much to dislike. Pedantic, dull, and as straight-laced as they come, Albert has one great passion, collecting butterflies. Greta finds that utterly appalling and cruel. For his part, Albert fears that his stubborn, immodest wife is always seconds away from attracting the wrong kind of attention and creating a scandal.

Passing of the Parliament Bill of 1911 in the House of Lords, Samuel Begg (courtesy Gutenberg Project via Wikimedia Commons)

I seldom read sagas because, fairly or not, I assume them to involve melodrama, contrivance, and an obsession with the surfaces of wealth and power that don’t interest me. But I made an exception for House of Gold, and I’m glad I did. Solomons needs no melodrama or contrivance to tell her tale, because she adeptly introduces the unexpected without resorting to plot twists. A passing sight or ordinary occurrence, unremarkable in itself, becomes a focal point for the characters to seek meaning. Consequently, Greta and Albert reveal their many facets naturally, as does most of the rather large cast of characters. Toward the end, the narrative veers toward contrivance, but even there, Solomons reclaims these moments somewhat by having her characters grapple with their humility.

Also, Solomons has tackled a thorny subject, the bigoted canard about Jews and money, and done so with surehanded brio. If anyone or anything purely represents anti-Semitic delusions, it’s the Rothschilds, which demands that an author conduct a deep, consequential examination of wealth and power. House of Gold delivers. It portrays the delicate balance the Goldbaums must strike, aware that however wealthy and/or ennobled they are, they’re outsiders and always will be. Their family name may permit a demarche in the halls of government, even to the palace or the prime minister’s office, but they know what’s said about them and how precarious their reputations are. Moreover, none can ever be sure that outsiders deal with them candidly; something’s always in play, even in the wedding presents lavished on Greta and Albert:

Two saloons had been set aside for this purpose, and yet still they were not large enough. Clients of the Goldbaums from all over Europe had sent tokens expressing felicity and gratitude, and the silent hope of generous terms in future negotiations. Tables heaved with silver dinner services from President Fallières, and Persian rugs from Emperor Franz Joseph himself. The British empire was expressed in miniature: hand-painted wallpaper from China, a carved chest from the maharajas of Rajasthan filled with finely colored rugs, an ivory jewelry box from Ceylon.… Greta escaped the minute she could, wishing that so many strangers had not been quite so generous, requiring so many hundreds of thank-you letters. If she had remained a moment longer she might have overheard Albert remark that he found the habit of ingratiating gift-giving obsequious and excessive.

Solomons means to recount history, and to some extent, she manages. Against the Goldbaum backdrop, she portrays the Liberal reform of 1911, which diminished the power of the House of Lords; the rise of feminism; and, most significantly to the plot, the First World War, which threatens to destroy the banking house and the family. I like how she conveys the home front, in its shortages and prejudices, the latter of which keep Greta from venturing out where people will hear her Austrian accent. Less successful or convincing is the narrative conceit that America entered the war to protect the extensive loans made to the Allies, a notion that serves the plot but not history and involves an information dump or three.

My other serious complaint involves Otto, Greta’s beloved brother, who needs a flaw or two and more depth in general. I understand the forces that restrain him, but though he appears to have dreams as wide as the heavens — he’s a brilliant astronomer — I don’t know what they are.

Still, I like House of Gold and think it’s worth reading for the central issues explored, the two principal characters, and the myriad details of everyday life that emerge from the narrative.

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

Spin and Heroism: Wonders Will Never Cease

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Review: Wonders Will Never Cease, by Robert Irwin
Arcade, 2016. 351 pp. $26

On Palm Sunday, 1461, the Wars of the Roses descend on Towton, where a bloody, decisive battle literally crowns the Yorkist rebellion against Lancastrian King Henry VI. Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, numbers among the Lancastrian dead, or so it seems. Yet he revives, having dreamed during his resurrection the most impossible events, including a ceremony involving the Holy Grail. Almost as miraculously, the new monarch presumptive, Edward, accepts his oath of loyalty.

William Caxton (dark robe) and Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, kneel to present the first book printed in English to Edward IV, his queen, Elizabeth, and Edward, Prince of Wales, ca. 1480 (courtesy Lambeth Palace Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

Anthony is neither the first nor the last great noble to change allegiances during the Wars of the Roses, but suspicion naturally clings to him. His rise — in all senses of the word — attracts enemies whose smiles must not be taken on trust. That’s true even, if not especially, after his sister, Elizabeth, marries Edward and becomes queen. The king’s brother-in-law stands to gain great wealth, power, and fame, which provokes jealousy among rivals and also means he is constantly at the crown’s beck and call.

Wonders Will Never Cease conveys the terror and chaos of England plagued by civil strife, yet this is no standard, ordinary historical tale, even though events follow the facts, and every character actually existed. If you’re looking for, say, The Kingmaker (Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick), he’s here, and so are Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and a host of others familiar from song and story. Rather, it’s how Irwin presents these people and their actions that seems original. As an astute reviewer for the Guardian noted, the narrative reads like a Terry Pratchett fantasy, and a marvelously rich one it is. At times very funny but also deadly serious, the novel explores the uses and misuses of storytelling; whether heroes deserve admiration; and how inflated reputations entrap living legends.

In other words, Irwin’s writing about spin, and what’s left when you delve through it to the truth underneath. Do you find a hero, or a man on the make who’s too quick to avenge a slight or enrich himself? In the process, some famous figures take a drubbing. Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur, attaches himself to Anthony, who, after listening to the legends, frankly wonders whether these Knights of the Round Table were such paragons after all.

But the most elaborate fun arrives through George Ripley, the king’s alchemist, who delights in making myths of real men. When Anthony first meets Ripley, he’s skeptical of having any use for a dabbler in metals, a prejudice that Ripley vigorously contests:

It is true that I have a laboratory equipped with furnaces, alembics, and pelican flasks. The King has been very generous and I find metals and volatile fluids good to think with. Making gold from lead would be merely vulgar. There is enough gold in the Kingdom as it is. No, my primary task is to distil base ambition and intrigue into high policy. Also I seek a cordial which will cure the [rebellious] ferment in the north… Also I publish prophecies which, because I have published them, come to be fulfilled.

What results, however, has far-reaching consequences. Ripley embellishes Anthony’s history to include battles with imaginary demons and ascribes acts of chastity and piety that even the son of a fifteenth-century English earl would hesitate to claim. Ripley knows that not everyone will believe everything, but that everybody will believe something, which makes him a sort of Abraham Lincoln before his time. And lest you think, as I did, that Ripley is too coincidental a name for a fabricator par excellence, let me repeat: He’s a historical figure.

But he probably didn’t spin tales like these, and I doubt very much whether he actually devised a Talking Head to tell the future. I love that touch, which sounds like a satire on today’s pundits, the only difference being that Edward IV’s version is always right. You can spin what you like, but you can’t outrun your fate.

To enjoy Wonders Will Never Cease, you have to like long interruptions to the forward narrative in which the characters tell stories and comment on them. But these tales have a purpose beyond the telling. They lead Anthony, who starts out as less than the deepest thinker, to consider the purpose of his life and what his fame actually means. And if we, the readers, ponder these issues too, I think Irwin has accomplished his purpose.

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

Perpetrators: A Meal in Winter

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Review: A Meal in Winter, by Hubert Mingarelli
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
New Press, 2018. 138 pp. $15

One brutal Polish winter in an unspecified year during World War II, three German soldiers embark on a mission they dislike because remaining in camp would require them to do what they like even less. Emmerich, Bauer, and the unnamed narrator evade their despised lieutenant, a self-important martinet, to go hunting one of “them.” If the trio brings their quarry back to camp, they’ll be spared having to execute those prisoners already collected. But if they pretend to have caught one and shot him or her on sight, the lieutenant won’t believe them and will be certain to assign them the mass killing duty, which disturbs their dreams and troubles their consciences.

Since “one of them” means a Jew, A Meal in Winter is therefore a Holocaust novel, and an unusual one, at that. Not only does Mingarelli focus entirely on Emmerich, Bauer, and their unnamed comrade — the perpetrators — the author casts them strictly as men ordered to perform a task they hate, which poses moral dilemmas. The real sadist, therefore, is the unseen lieutenant, who has placed the three in their predicament. What’s more, they seem neutral, if not indifferent, to Jews, whereas a Polish civilian who happens on them is a vicious anti-Semite. Emmerich, Bauer, and the narrator are reservists, meaning they’re older men, and Emmerich has an adolescent son he’s worried about, an anxiety his buddies try to help them with.

No Holocaust story I’ve ever heard starts from such a focus on individuals rather than mass actions, but that doesn’t mean A Meal in Winter couldn’t have happened. Mingarelli plainly wants as spare and simple a narrative as he can get, preventing the perpetrators from hiding in a large group. That approach works well in some ways, but others, not.

The understated prose conveys the frigid, barren winter landscape, the physical difficulties of coping with it, the trio’s attempts to pull through their hardships together, and, from the outset, having to choose between unpalatable alternatives. Such is their state of mind that when they capture a Jew and find an empty house in which to warm up, that counts as a special occasion:

When I turned around, there was smoke floating from the chimney. The sight lifted my heart. Added to the fact that we had avoided the shootings and that there had been no wind since the morning, it was no exaggeration to say that this had been a good day.

And of course Emmerich’s sharp eyes [which had spotted their captive] had made it an even better day, for tomorrow we would undoubtedly avoid the shootings again, if there were any. Bringing one back meant we would have the right to go out searching again. Nobody would be giving us evil looks…. Unlike today, we would even be able to wait for the kitchen to open so we could get our rations. We would be entitled to all of that tomorrow.

So far, so good. A Meal in Winter is a haunting novel, to be sure, a razor-sharp moral tale that attempts to explain how men caught up in a heinous crime contribute their share of it. Mingarelli, a writer of great subtlety, never lets his characters soapbox; like most soldiers, they’re largely inarticulate, especially about feelings. So it is that when Emmerich frets about his son at home, and whether the boy will take up smoking — what the soldiers do plenty of — I read that as his prayer that his son will never have to hunt and kill anybody.

But there’s one problem with A Meal in Winter. Emmerich, Bauer, and friend are still killers, and they’re chasing down victims who pose no threat. They’re not fighting off Russian soldiers or Polish partisans; in fact, they’re not fighting at all, because the people they’re hunting have no weapons. Like most soldiers, these three concentrate on how to stay warm, eat enough, and get safely through another day — but that program requires them to murder innocents. Consequently, they’re unsympathetic — at least, to me — and if I’m supposed to be impressed that they tell the anti-Semitic Pole to quit foaming at the mouth, forget it.

Conversely, if Mingarelli wants to show how these men kill without malice or conviction, you could argue that’s even worse than if they were die-hard anti-Semites. Granted, a key strength of this novel is how Mingarelli leaves plenty of space for the reader to slip into the story and ask, “What would I do in this situation?” But though I understand the soldiers’ plight, which Mingarelli describes in remarkably few yet vivid words, I can’t call them victims, care about them particularly, or identify with them; they’re moral placeholders, no more.

Nevertheless, as a moral exercise, A Meal in Winter will challenge readers, and there’s much to be said for that. This slim novel won’t take you much time — I spent longer writing this review than I did reading the book — yet I’m confident it will stay with you.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this commentary appeared in shorter, different form.

An Unreliable Priest: The Western Wind

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Review: The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey
Grove, 2018. 294 pp. $26

It’s 1491, and John Reve, priest at the English village of Oakham, faces political and social problems for which his religious studies couldn’t have prepared him. During Shrovetide, just before Lent, Thomas Newman drowns in the flood-swollen river, and his body hasn’t been found, only part of his shirt.

Since he didn’t confess or receive last rites, his soul may not enter heaven. Also, as Oakham’s richest resident, he owned most of the farm and grazing land, whose disposition hangs in the balance. If Newman died a suicide, his property will revert to the crown, which would destroy Oakham. But the village hasn’t prospered in years, a circumstance that covetous monks at a nearby abbey are planning to use as a pretext to take over, so if the death is accidental, they can argue that Oakham is so disordered, it failed to care for even its wealthiest inhabitant.

Accordingly, Father Reve, known as a benevolent presence in Oakham, must see justice done to Newman, his friend and most important parishioner, while protecting the villagers and their interests. Reve’s chief obstacle is his immediate superior, the church dean, a sour, unpleasant sort who takes up residence in Newman’s house, insists that the case must be murder, and orders Reve to find the killer via the confessional. Finding a sacrificial lamb, the dean says, is the only way to save Oakham.

Detail from The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 (courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, via Wikimedia Commons)

Such an everyday tragedy — a man drowns in a river — yet the pressures and tensions that result are complex beyond imagining. I admire such deceptively simple premises, which allow deep exploration of universal themes through a tiny, specific incident. Through Reve’s first-person narration, Harvey covers an astonishing array of subjects, among them man’s relation to God; whether truth varies with circumstance; what modern thinking means; and principle versus expediency. Reve, for all his dedication, has more than a dash of free thinker in him, one reason Newman fascinates him. The dead man traveled widely, brought back religious art from Italy, and had a way of thinking for himself in religious matters. He’s a harbinger of the Renaissance, therefore, as his name, “new man,” suggests, while Reve evokes the French rêve, or “dream.”

Fitting these ideas within the frame of the mystery, the politics, and the religious rituals re-creates fifteenth-century English rural life in limpid detail. You grasp the outlook, fears, occupations, and mores of these humble folk, and though it seems effortless, that’s a tribute to Harvey’s economical storytelling and her mellifluous prose:

We know there are no wolf-men and no sea creatures of that kind; it’s children who believe in those. There are only spirits — ill-meaning spirits, who live as we all do on God’s earth but aren’t made by God. This is no secret to us, and men much sharper than me have proven it. The spirits are here on earth to test and strengthen us; when things die and decay, the decaying matter that has no home in heaven emits a fetid cloud of minuscule spirited matter that brings illness of all kinds — of the body, of our fates.

Casting off the supernatural only leads to other fancies, an irony of which Reve has no inkling. That those fancies would last until Pasteur underlines how stubborn and backward humans can be, even when they think they’re enlightened—an idea worth deeper reflection.

So breathtaking is The Western Wind that for most of it, I thought I was reading one of the best novels I’ve picked up in years — until page 235, to be precise. Then, almost four-fifths of the way through, Harvey plays a trick. Father Reve has a secret or three that he hasn’t revealed in his narration up to then, and which he now confesses, returning to an earlier point in the story. The writing remains brilliant, the story gripping, and if anything, more complex.

And yet, I resent what Harvey’s done as unfair, manipulative, and ungenerous. I remember no clue in the early chapters that Reve is an unreliable narrator, though this particular unreliability has to do with omission. Having earned my trust and convinced me that Reve possesses certain qualities, Harvey unwraps a version of, “Fooled you.”

I might have expected that had the narrative proceeded like Rashomon, the classic Kurosawa film about an incident told from several perspectives, each yielding a different interpretation. But here, Reve is the only narrator, so that to challenge my perceptions, he “forgets” or “neglects” to include certain facts.

The Western Wind is a thought-provoking tale, perhaps even more so that Reve has hidden layers. I only wish that the storytelling didn’t rest, in part, on a gimmick.

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

A Serious Yarn: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

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Review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
HarperCollins, 2018. 484 pp. $29

It’s 1785, and Jonah Hancock, a Deptford shipping merchant of some means, receives unwelcome news: The captain of one of three ships he owns has sold it and its cargo to bring back a dead, preserved mermaid. Hancock doesn’t know what to do with his new treasure, and the likely financial loss terrifies him, even though he’s solvent. Playing to his fears, his controlling, self-absorbed sister accuses him of squandering the fortune their extended family (read: her children) depends on and will make their name a laughingstock. As a childless widower, you see, he’s got no one else to support, but, more to the point, Jonah has always tried to appease his sister, a thankless, impossible task. He’s sorely in want of backbone or spirit of adventure, but he doesn’t know where to find them—or even whether it’s advisable to look.

This illustration of P.T. Barnum’s alleged “Feejee Mermaid” first appeared in the New York Herald in 1842 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, to recoup his expenses, he puts the mermaid on display and creates a sensation. The money he receives from gawkers willing to pay for the privilege helps soothe his worries. More importantly, the exposure widens his social world, for the bawdy house that he’s licensed to show his mermaid is frequented by the rich and famous — and those who sell themselves to them. Crucial to the proceedings, the good Mr. Hancock, though scandalized at what he sees, meets the beautiful, accomplished courtesan Angelica Neal. Since the title tells you that Jonah will marry, she’s the likeliest candidate, if only because he meets nobody else.

What a risky authorial gambit, yielding up a crucial plot point, daring the reader to put the book down. But Gowar is more than equal to the challenge she sets herself, for how the two characters overcome first impressions makes for quite a story, with much “no — and furthermore” to block their way. Angelica, accustomed to baubles, flash, and excitement, shouldn’t be interested in Jonah for anything other than his money, and yet there’s more at work than that. Likewise, though Jonah has never met an obstacle he can’t run away from, he has nevertheless mourned his late wife and infant son for fifteen years, and you sense courage and will gathering under his scraggly powdered wig.

Reading The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock reminds me of a modern-day Henry Fielding, complete with intricate plot, ribaldry, and social commentary. So it is that Hancock observes titled members of Parliament at the bawdy house, who speak in “baby-talk and garbled vowels as the signallers of good breeding”:

Since he has spent two score years outside the society of genteel Whigs, he must be forgiven for hearing their speech as a cacophony of pantomime sneezes; they pronounce the first syllable with great energy, and trail off into a drawl as if between a word’s first letter and its last they have lost all conviction in what they are saying. He is aware — and ashamed of — his dislike for them; he is a Tory through and through, as his father was before him. It is the logical, the patriotic, the honest choice. He has never until this moment felt in any means awkward about it.

But the comic moments aside, there’s much serious matter here. Gowar talks about the way men imprison women for their own use — literally or figuratively — so she brings you inside the brothel, showing the courtesan’s (and madam’s) training and mindset, commercial cruelty, and their hirelings’ poignant sacrifice. In this novel, it seems that every woman in London is for sale, in one way or another, and the mermaid symbolizes this painful fact. The unlikely romance between the straight-laced Jonah and the calculating, brittle Angelica works beautifully, I think; the two characters complement one another in ways they could never have imagined. I also note the choice of names: Jonah, the unwilling prophet who has more to teach than he knows, and Angelica, who discovers, to her surprise, that she possesses goodness and simplicity.

The jacket flap mentions the theme of race, but Gowar spends little time on it, and her attempt to extend the imprisonment metaphor in that direction, though literally apt—enslavement, after all—feels like a letdown because she doesn’t develop it enough. Did a previous, doubtless longer, version of the manuscript dwell on it more deeply? As it is, the theme seems more a point of philosophy than essential to the story, rather like a room to a large house that has been closed off. But that’s a minor complaint about a very fine book — a debut novel, in fact.

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

Ménage à Trois: Love Is Blind

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Review: Love Is Blind, by William Boyd
Knopf, 2018. 369 pp. $27

Brodie Moncur is one of those fictional characters you wish you knew in real life. A Scotsman entering his twenties in the nineteenth century’s final decade, Brodie has spent six years tuning pianos for an Edinburgh concern, Channon and Co. He knows all there is to know about his craft but much less of the world than he would like, so when his boss chooses him to manage a showroom in Paris, Brodie jumps at the chance. With his bag of tools and the knowledge in his head, he can go anywhere. But to make his break, he must stand up to his narcissistic, tyrannical father, who keeps the army of Brodie’s siblings in thrall—Brodie’s the first to leave and by no means the youngest. Nobody, least of all Brodie himself, expects him ever to return; as Boyd often does, he shows that anticipated emotional transition through the natural world:

Brodie had been fishing this small river since he could remember — Callum [his brother] also. They knew every bend and pool, every potential crossing point, every placid, midge-hovered eddy. It had a calming effect on him… memories skittered through his mind, came and went like butterflies or sun dapples beneath breeze-shifted branches; he saw himself as a little boy with his first rod, remembered the charge and thrill of his first catch. Maybe this small river and its wilderness should be ‘home’ to him, he thought, not the manse or the village. He should carefully store the memories of this day and recall it whenever he felt lonely or homesick.

But, as the title suggests, this novel isn’t just a coming-of-age story. A creative thinker, in Paris Brodie devises a scheme whereby a celebrated pianist will use a Channon exclusively and thus publicize the brand. The idea works, but with consequences that will change Brodie’s life; John Kilbarron, “the Irish Liszt,” signs on, sweeping Brodie into his mercurial, if fading, orbit. One moon encircling planet Kilbarron is Russian soprano Lika Blum, his mistress, for whom Brodie falls, hard. Another moon is the pianist’s boorish, mistrustful brother, Malachi, who worships John and acts as his business manager. To no surprise, life gets very complicated. It also travels to different places, and one of the pleasures of this novel is how Boyd describes them all.

Some tools of the trade: rubber mutes and a tuning hammer (courtesy Onascout via Wikimedia Commons)

Brodie’s character appeals, in part, because he takes his many losses without an ounce of self-pity, while enjoying happiness to the fullest. He draws people to him wherever he goes, and his love for and understanding of pianos makes his work a fascinating art. The scenes in which he repairs or tunes these magnificent instruments make wonderful reading, a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a virtuoso’s necessary assistant that no one ever meets.

Brodie trusts people easily, perhaps too much so — strange, given his corrupt, vicious father — and suffers for it. His ingenuity bears fruit, but others seem destined to appropriate it. Accordingly, bad things do happen to him; one theme of Love Is Blind is how quickly happiness and contentment can dissolve. Still, those reversals have to do with others’ weakness, not his, so at times, I wonder whether he’s a little too good to be true. His sole major flaw seems to be vengefulness, but you have to push him very hard before he unleashes it, testament to his patience.

The more obvious weak link is Malachi, whose antagonism has no apparent root except a self -sacrificial brother worship, which Boyd explains but never explores. As an antagonist, Malachi is satisfyingly tireless, but after a while, he becomes more of a device than a person. I wish Lika came into closer focus as well, for she seems a passionate, seductive, willing beauty, perhaps too convenient for Brodie by half. He’s the star of the show, and what you think about that fact or the man himself will decide whether Love Is Blind is for you.

Despite these drawbacks, though, I like this novel, and I think Brodie’s story makes for beautiful, poignant reading.

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