Child Love: The Light Between Oceans

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Review: The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman
Scribner, 2012. 343 pp. $25

Tom Sherbourne returns to his native Australia after the First World War deeply disturbed by what he saw and did and seeking solitude. He has nothing and no one to hold onto, and he finds what he thinks is the perfect job, tending a lighthouse on a forlorn island off the Australian coast. There, no one will ask him about his past, and his exacting, meticulous duties will keep him busy for the months that stretch between brief shore leaves.

Tom wonders why he survived the war when so many others didn’t or came home physically or emotionally maimed. But that’s not the only trauma to trouble his dreams. His mother left home when he was a young boy–or did his father, a cold tyrant with no access to any feelings except anger, throw her out? Either way, both have passed from Tom’s life, and his brother Cecil, the favored son due to inherit the family business, is equally unapproachable in Tom’s eyes, though it’s not clear why. But it’s enough to know that Tom Sherbourne has no family to speak of, or to.

Supplies being unloaded for South Solitary Island lighthouse, Australia, 1946, unknown photographer (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

However, on shore leave, he meets Isabelle Graysmark, a spirited, adventurous young woman, and they’re immediately attracted. Tom, much older and badly bruised, distrusts the vulnerability where tender feelings lead, and she practically has to convince him to marry her. He dares hope that Izzy will be his reward, however undeserved, for having survived a miserable childhood and the war. For her part, Izzy believes implicitly that she couldn’t have found a more loyal, steadfast, and loving husband, or a more nurturing father for their children. She only wishes he’d tell her what happened to him before they met.

To their delight, Izzy becomes pregnant almost immediately but miscarries–and again, and again. Each time, she blames herself, and what’s worse, she can’t understand his reaction. He aches for her, he’s sad and sorry, but he’s not devastated for himself. He cherishes their lives together as the first tenderness he’s ever known, a gift that many soldiers serving under him never got the chance to receive. He understands what she doesn’t, that life is often unfair, and that there’s no malign intent involved or blame to pass around, only bad luck and circumstance. But Izzy thinks his gratitude for what they have means that he’s cold and hurtful, incapable of feeling. And one night, when a rowboat lands near the lighthouse carrying a dead man and a young infant, the Sherbournes make a desperate decision that will mark their lives and others’.

The Light Between Oceans is an accomplished novel, and Stedman’s first. At its best, the narrative touches the lyrical and depth of insight and makes them one. Consider Tom’s first view of the island, before he meets Izzy:

Hundreds of feet above sea level, he was mesmerized by the drop to the ocean crashing against the cliffs directly below. The water sloshed like white paint, milky-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a deep blue undercoat. At the other end of the island, a row of immense boulders created a break against the surf and left the water inside it as calm as a bath. He had the impression he was hanging from the sky, not rising from the earth. Very slowly, he turned a full circle, taking in the nothingness of it all. It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.

It’s a good novelist who can make beautiful sentences draw the reader into a character’s inner life without calling attention to themselves. And in focusing her characters on the most primal attachment, that for a child, Stedman evokes tremendous power from a relatively simple story. I say relatively because she requires more coincidence and suspension of disbelief than I like, but once you get past that, there’s no denying the passions or the moral issues involved.

I have a harder time getting around Izzy’s character. I like how the spontaneous girlishness hides other, dangerous levels, but–without giving away too much–I think she becomes unglued, and by the time I finished the book, I didn’t like her much. Liking a main character isn’t requisite, but I wanted to feel more sympathy for her than I did, and I might have, had she struggled with the momentous decision that drives the narrative or consider how it might affect someone else. Instead, she sets her mind and seldom thinks about it again–refuses to, even.

All the same, Stedman’s a very good writer, and The Light Between Oceans will make you think.

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

One Big (Almost) Happy Family: Kiss Carlo

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Review: Kiss Carlo, by Adriana Trigiani
Harper, 2017. 524 pp. $28

Nicky Castone drives a cab for the family business in South Philadelphia in 1949. But it’s not his family, exactly, for when his parents died, the Palazzinis, his Aunt Jo and Uncle Dominic, took him in and have treated him as their own ever since. His aunt, uncle, and army of cousins assume that Nicky will follow the same path they have. He’ll marry his fiancée of seven years, Peachy DePino, drive a hack as he’s always done, and live with his bride in the rambling Palazzini house on Montrose Street. He’ll father children, be a regular at church, and sit down to his Aunt Jo’s fabulous cooking every day. That’s what life’s supposed to be, and since the Second World War is over and business is good, why not?

Troop 152 observes Scout Sunday at St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, 1949 (courtesy Bernie Kelley and Bruce Andersen, via Wikimedia Commons)

Why, indeed? What Nicky hasn’t told anyone–certainly not Peachy, who’s an even straighter arrow than his kinsmen–is that he moonlights at a struggling neighborhood theater. He does everything for the Borelli Theater that anyone backstage can do–clean the floors, hold the prompt book, you name it; that’s Nicky Castone, ever helpful, ever self-effacing. But one night, an emergency forces the prompter into playing Sebastian, a lead role in Twelfth Night, opposite the director, Calla Borelli, to whom he’s attracted.

Much hinges on that fateful moment, from which point forth, our Nicky is a different man, no longer content to follow his cousins’ path, though he loves them and worships his Aunt Jo. I won’t tell you how he tries to break free or the scrapes he gets into, some of which are howlingly funny. Just a hint, though: The Carlo of the title is an ambassador from an Italian mountain village who takes ship for the United States and the Pennsylvania town once settled by the villagers. When his path crosses Nicky’s, hi-jinks ensue.

Humor is therefore the great strength of Kiss Carlo, and Trigiani lovingly re-creates this South Philly Italian clan. There’s a pair of feuding brothers who “severed ties over money, the cause of every split in every Italian family since the Etruscans,” during which “the grievances stacked up, one upon the other, like soggy layers of wedding pastries on a Venetian table. Then it got personal.” Through these observations, which pepper the narrative, and characters who never lack for a quip, Trigiani captures the postwar striving, the ambitions, the jealousies:

Jo’s simple gold wedding band remained on her hand, but Nancy [her sister-in-law] traded up. The prongs on Nancy’s modest quarter-carat diamond engagement ring were stretched to accommodate the glitzy three-and-a-half-carat upgrade. The delicate gold chain around Nancy’s neck was replaced with one as thick as a strand of pappardelle, from which dangled a new medal more miraculous than a pope’s.

The geniality and generosity Trigiani displays toward her characters and readers go far to make Kiss Carlo enjoyable, funny, and occasionally thoughtful, a paean to those who follow their star in life no matter what anyone says and risk everything to be happy. It’s a nice message and good tonic. In particular, I like how Trigiani makes Nicky (and others) suffer to get where they’re going. For the most part, there are no easy fixes here, and plenty of reversals.

Nevertheless, she rescues her characters in the end, and it feels forced, just like the sepia-toned harmony in which they bask. This is 1949, after all, and racial and ethnic tensions weren’t in hiding, not in South Philadelphia or anywhere else. Yet the Palazzini business has an African-American dispatcher, Mrs. Mooney, and not only would one ever dream of casting a slur, you get the feeling she’d be welcome in the family. Likewise, one Palazzini daughter-in-law, Elsa, is a Polish war bride (read: Jewish) who survived “by working in a hospital,” a miracle that goes unexplained. As the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust, Elsa suffers no apparent trauma, seems perfectly happy among devout Italian Catholics, yet when she announces that she wishes to attend synagogue once more, no one blows a gasket. It’s all in the family.

It’s that desire, understandable but unreal, to rescue absolutely everyone that mars Kiss Carlo for me. Maybe it works for Nicky, but when his attempt at self-liberation inspires Mrs. Mooney and Elsa to break free as well, that’s pushing it. Developing those supblots to their pleasant but dubious conclusions also makes the novel longer than it should be. As a light confection with its sober side, Kiss Carlo would have worked better than the many-layered pastry it is. The layers aren’t soggy, but they can’t bear the weight put on them.

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

Life As a Messenger: News of the World

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Review: News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Morrow, 2016. 213 pp. $23

The protagonist of this engaging, thoughtful novel, Jefferson Kyle Kidd, has an unusual profession. An itinerant version of a town crier, he travels the Texas frontier in 1870, reading carefully selected stories from out-of-town newspapers and charges his listeners a dime admission. Captain Kidd, as he’s known, dresses to project an image of an educated, experienced person of wide understanding, a role that comes easily, and chooses those stories that he thinks will fire the imaginations of his audience. He’s seldom wrong.

But it’s not just the captain’s profession or bearing that set him apart. A veteran of two wars, including that of 1812, and a southerner whose sons-in-law died for the Confederacy, Kidd has too much empathy to resort to race prejudice, reserving his hatred for viciousness, bullying, or predatory behavior. He likes his roving life, or so he believes, and there’s no tonic like his own company. And yet, he’s begun to realize that all isn’t what it could be.

He had become impatient of trouble and other people’s emotions. His life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled, and it was something that had only come upon him lately. A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas and he did not know what to do about it except seek out quiet and solitude. He was always impatient to get the readings over with now.

After this particular reading, he greets Britt Johnson, a black freedman whom he calls friend, who has a favor to ask. Britt has been given a fifty-dollar gold piece to bring a young girl to San Antonio, a four-hundred mile trip, returning her to her aunt and uncle following several years’ captivity with the Kiowas. Britt doesn’t want the job, partly because his two companions and he have urgent business elsewhere, but mostly because transporting a white girl would likely get him lynched. Kidd doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone, especially a ten-year-old who acts half-feral and will probably bolt at the first chance she gets. He’s raised two daughters, so he’s “done with all that,” he’s in his seventies, and he’s had enough trouble. But he can’t turn away from a friend, and the girl’s an orphan, after all, and no doubt saw the Kiowa kill her parents. She needs help.

“In Summer, Kiowa,” 1898, Frank A. Rinehart’s platinum, hand-colored print (courtesy Boston Public Library via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Johanna, as Kidd calls her, is a handful and then some. She has no use for shoes, clothes as he understands them, table manners, kindness, or conversation–not that he speaks Kiowa or that she remembers English. And yes, Johanna does try to run away. But she also possesses wilderness skills that he appreciates (except when she misuses them in embarrassing ways) and courage under fire, which tells him she’s seen armed combat. As you’d expect, over time and circumstance, the two unwilling traveling companions learn each other, a little, and protect each other a lot.

They have several adventures that don’t turn out the way they anticipate; Jiles understands how to work the “no–and furthermore.” The reason they work, however, is that each connects to Kidd’s outlook, particularly his views of the cultural and racial divides that lead people to hate perfect strangers simply for what they (apparently) represent. It’s a clear-eyed lesson and as up-to-date as you could want, but it’s also a primer on how to write a novel. The exposition of the theme and the main character’s inner life are inseparable, and this is why he’s such a winning protagonist. For Kidd, who’s seen much of life and is looking forward to rest and peace and quiet during his final years–and who therefore has a certain perspective on younger people scurrying around–the question becomes, What does it all mean?

And his answer, which fits his profession, his difficult errand, and his refusal to take himself too seriously, is very simple. “Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.” He wonders whether each person has just one message to bring through life, which may or may not have anything to do directly with the bearer, but you have no choice. You have to carry it.

In reading News of the World, that idea gives me something to think about.

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

Where Tension Comes From (or Not): The Devils of Cardona

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Review: The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr
Riverhead, 2016. 401 pp. $27

Nobody likes the priest of Belamar de la Sierra, a Spanish village in Aragon near the French border, and for good reason. But when he’s assassinated in March 1584, and his body used to desecrate his church, whatever he’s done to deserve his fate is immaterial. The crown and the Inquisition have accused Moriscos, former Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism, of the murder. By definition, their crime is at once political and an apparent example of the heresy that must be rooted out of Spain.

An advisor to King Philip II counsels His Most Catholic Majesty to appoint a civil rather than an ecclesiastical investigator, much to the disgust of the Inquisition authorities. Nevertheless, Bernardo Mendoza, judge and erstwhile soldier in the wars against the Muslims, comes highly recommended, and he’s permitted to pursue the inquiry.

Philip II of Spain, ca. 1550, credited to Titian’s studio (courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

That, however, is easier said than done. Not only do the people of Belamar de la Sierra, Christians of old lineage and Morisco alike, distrust the royal investigator and pretend they know nothing about the priest’s death, they all have stories about the extortion, debauchery, and rape the late man committed at their expense. But hardly has Mendoza heard even an inkling of these offenses when more murders occur, and more again, involving bandits, Moriscos, greedy landowners, rogue officers of the law, Inquisitors, and just about everyone else in Aragon. Double-crosses abound, no road is safe, and everyone is on the take.

Consequently, Carr has plenty of material with which to keep the wheels spinning at a dizzying rate. He also knows a great deal about sixteenth-century Spain, whether he’s writing about religious belief, politics, church architecture, or fashion, which he conveys in often vivid prose. I further appreciate Carr’s eye for themes, which include religious prejudice, where justice lies between poor alternatives, and misperceptions about Islam, which is certainly topical.

Despite all the busyness in The Devils of Cardona, though, it’s flat. It’s obvious very early on that the Moriscos are largely innocent, so there’s no mystery there. If you can’t tell by analyzing the clues, you know by the overly earnest tone praising these people and showing how badly they’ve been abused. I can’t argue; was there ever a more detestable monarchy or one that perverted law or morality in a more monstrous fashion? But I don’t need to read set-piece paragraphs explaining how Moriscos are really good guys once you get to know them. And that’s standard here, as Carr habitually tells you how to feel about his characters by giving them pleasant or unpleasant facial features, a judgment to which they live up, without fail. The good guys are obviously good, and the bad guys are really, really bad. And the baddest guys around are the landowners, so by page 200, or halfway through, you know that’s where Mendoza’s sleuthing will lead him. There’s little doubt how that will end.

Carr tries to throw you off the trail by introducing further and further twists, usually acts of violence, some of which are predictable too. But there’s a better way to keep readers turning the pages. We all want the innocent to triumph, and the inquisitors to be damned. But that’s abstract, and you could get that by reading a history of the period. Rather, I want to care about Mendoza and to see Inquisitor Mercader, his chief ecclesiastical adversary, in a way that makes him a full person. Unfortunately, Carr doesn’t allow either.

Donald Maass, a literary agent whose books have shaped my approach as a novelist and a reviewer, addresses this issue in his latest effort, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He argues that the best you can get out of adding plot points is to keep the pages turning through sheer intricacy. But many, if not most, readers will give up, because you’ve failed to engage their empathy, and if they do finish the book, they’ll have trouble remembering it. To make a deeper, more lasting impression, you have to connect the characters’ inner lives with the action, and the manner in which you do so strikes a chord (or doesn’t). Tension resides in the reader’s mind, not the words on the page. And this is true, Maass says, for any type of fiction you can name, thriller or literary, romance or fantasy. Makes sense to me.

I think Carr is an able writer, and The Devils of Cardona is only his first novel. I hope his future efforts reveal his characters to greater depth and complexity–and if he manages that, he won’t have to work so hard at plotting.

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

We’ll Always Have Paris: A Hero of France

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Review: A Hero of France, by Alan Furst
Random House, 2016. 234 pp. $27

If you’ve read any of Furst’s fourteen books, the time and place will be familiar: Paris, 1941, the City of Light under a blackout imposed by the German Occupation. It’s early spring, so America has yet to declare war, and Britain fights alone against German power at its high-water mark. Trying to strike back at the German hinterland, British bombers overfly French territory, and many don’t make it home. Consequently, increasing numbers of British airmen are parachuting into Occupied territory, and the nascent Resistance does its best to keep them out of German hands and send them to safety in neutral Spain.

German troops parade down the Champs Elysée, Paris, 1940 (courtesy Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)

One such Resistance cell operates in Paris, under a man code-named Mathieu. Like the setting, he too is typical Furst–worldly, mature, resourceful, committed, without swagger, doing what he does because he thinks someone has to, refusing to judge those of his countrymen who want no part of it. Oh, and did I say that beautiful women find him irresistible? Many things are rationed in Furst’s Europe, but sex isn’t.

Naturally, the occupiers and their French toadies do their best to crack the Resistance. But luckily for Mathieu and his operatives, the Occupation is new enough so that the German Army and the French police undertake the counterespionage; the Gestapo remains largely in the wings. As a result, the bad guys aren’t as vicious and uncompromising as they might be, especially since many of the French contingent would rather not arrest their countrymen. The real danger lies in ordinary civilians looking to make money by informing, and they can be persistent.

Mathieu . . . saw what was indeed a strange-looking man, or, rather, a strange-looking boy, barely in his twenties. Standing at the bar and drinking a glass of wine, he had dark skin and dark eyes, wore a buttoned-up overcoat that was both much too tight and much too long, a hat with a wide, flat brim and a low crown, also flat, to which he’d added a bow tie that might once have belonged to a café waiter. With a pencil line of a mustache that traced his upper lip, he struck Mathieu as a boy dressed up to play his father.

But this guy, though dangerous, isn’t the real threat. The real threat is a German police inspector imported from Hamburg to crack the Resistance cells operating out of Paris, and he’s got people working for him who are much smarter than anyone Mathieu has come up against.

Furst moves his story rapidly, and, as always, his narrative represents the definition of “no; and furthermore.” Plans backfire thanks to inattention or nerves or plain bad luck. What I like about A Hero of France is that whatever heroism you see is of the quiet variety and seemingly more genuine for it. The narrative also gives the bad guys their due; of the several minor characters who come through clearly, the German police inspector and his chief mole stand out for me.

Furst’s trademark atmospheric descriptions are in full force too. You feel the blackout, the tension in the streets, a divided nation about to discover that when it comes to privation, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Furst suggests the political struggle between the Resistance and its British contacts–we won’t call them allies–and the pressures under which the French administration tries to remain intact. With equal, admirable economy, he makes a key historical point, that the British were so desperate for air crews that they sent escaped fliers back into the air. (This contrasted with subsequent American policy, which grounded escapees on the logic that they might be recognized if recaptured, compromising them and anyone who had helped them.)

All this is fine. But I still pine for Furst’s earliest works, which felt fresher, more fleshed out, and more gripping. They were also much longer. Maybe that kind of book is passé or unprofitable or un-something. But A Hero of France has tons of narrators, few of whom come alive, and, despite the “no; and furthermore,” inconvenient circumstances sometimes resolve themselves in ways they wouldn’t have in earlier books. If Furst is trying to suggest that he can do this because it’s only spring 1941, and the very, very bad guys aren’t in charge yet, I’m not buying.

Paris is Paris, and we can always have that, as Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. But certain things can be too familiar and leave us wanting more.

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

Who Owns a Dead Writer?: Max Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memoriam: Helen Dunmore

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

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

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

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

House of Atreus, Revisited: House of Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminism, No Holds Barred: The Wages of Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Programme Too Full: Radio Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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