The Limit of Good Intentions: Hour Glass

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Review: Hour Glass, by Michelle Rene
Amberjack, 2018. 292 pp. $15

The Black Hills of South Dakota are no place for two children to fend for themselves, especially in August 1876, barely a month after Little Bighorn. But that’s the trouble that twelve-year-old Jimmy Glass, and his six-year-old half-sister, Flower, face when their father, their only parent, catches smallpox. Jimmy doesn’t know what ails his Pa, but it looks serious. It’s up to them to find a doctor, so the two manage to load Pa into a wagon, for which they have no horse, and sweat the contraption into Deadwood, the nearest town.

Deadwood exists because of the gold strike in the Black Hills, and the miners’ presence defies Federal law, which had supposedly kept “settlers” out of Sioux territory. So Deadwood isn’t merely a garden-variety frontier brothel-and-casino town, but one with defiant vengeance in its bones. And, it should be said, Flower is a potential target, as half Lakota Sioux and developmentally different — she doesn’t speak, won’t look people in the eye, and hates to be touched. When asked to say her name, the best she can reply is Ower. That becomes Hour; hence the title.

C. E. Finn’s 1880s photograph of Calamity Jane (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The relationship between the protective older brother and the emotionally inexpressive sister offers a twist on a familiar theme: Innocent children melt hard, greedy hearts. What’s more, who else should take the besieged children under her wing than Calamity Jane, as colorful a figure as you could want? She drinks like ten fish, curses like a sailor, but shoots straight, rides hard, and takes no guff from any man. In fact, on first meeting, Jimmy is convinced she is a man, a whisper of the feminist theme that pervades the novel:

Her skin was tanned and leathery, and she wore the uniform of a pioneer. If she had any bit of femininity about her shape, it was hidden beneath the layers of buckskin. Her hat was a man’s hat, worn from use, ornamented with Indian feathers. Everything about her had read ‘man’ until she pulled away that bandana to show the more delicate features of a woman’s mouth. Her crystal-blue eyes glared down at me as I froze in place.

Through Jane’s good offices, Pa Glass is put in quarantine with other smallpox victims, where she tends him herself. Dora DuFran, the madam of Diddlin’ Dora’s (no lie), takes in the children, who immediately become the pets of the house. But for me, the chief charm of Hour Glass is how Jimmy treats his little sister and does his best to look out for her. We’d all be proud of a son like him, sensitive, empathic, trying his best to play the man’s role he’s been thrust into when he knows he’s still a child. Jimmy also has a preternatural gift for peacemaking, and it’s hard not to like that too.

But it’s equally hard to figure out how he gained such self-knowledge and skills, for, like much else in Hour Glass, they just seem to fall out of the sky. How indeed would a young boy born to tragedy, likely having no playmates and only one parent who is probably too busy to spend much time on him, seem so fully formed in self-concept and so talented socially? To me, this is the sort of novel that works while you’re reading it, because you’re caught up in adventure after adventure. But after you put it down, you think, No.

None of the good guys ever does anything really bad, and there are no villains, only an occasional badass. Disagreements never leave lingering resentments or even change the course of the story. Though each chapter moves well, once the episode is done, it’s on to the next, with very little reflection. For instance, despite the feminism and good-heartedness that inform this novel, Jimmy never reckons with what a brothel is, or what it must be like to work there. His notions of sex are formed enough to make him draw back in horror at the notion that his sister might be condemned to that life one day. Yet he never connects his fear to the women he sees, which allows him to have unalloyed gratitude toward Dora, who’s profiting off them.

I’m glad Jimmy and his sister get taken care of — nobody wants to see kids suffer — yet I also want them to struggle, to face more prejudice and suspicion than they do, to get into fixes that even Calamity Jane can’t rescue them from. I can’t help think that not only does the author try too hard to protect her characters, pulling back from her strong premise, she has superimposed a twenty-first-century sensibility on a nineteenth-century narrative. Unfortunately, her choice of language sometimes suggests as much, as when her characters use words or phrases like backlash, fine with it, or best-case scenario.

Late in the novel, Jane remarks of her own legend spinning that “folks don’t want real stories.” Maybe not, but the lies have to seem like truth.

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

Spy Family: Paris Spring

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Review: Paris Spring, by James Naughtie
Overlook, 2016. 320 pp. $27

Will Flemyng, who works undercover for the British Embassy in Paris, is accosted on the métro by an East German agent named Kristof. At first, Will wonders whether Kristof is willing to trade information or change sides, and since it’s April 1968, and talk of democracy in Prague has the Soviet bloc on edge, Kristof’s sudden appearance offers possibilities.

Or does it? A subsequent rendezvous turns testy when Kristof threatens to expose Will’s brother, Abel, who spies for the United States, as a traitor. Will refuses to believe him or be bullied. But he also keeps his own counsel, because this is family, and the Flemyngs are close, matter of state or no. So Will doesn’t tell his boss, Freddy Craven, all he should, and there too lie emotional ties. Freddy’s like a father to Will, an older man in ill health who’s shown him the ropes of tradecraft, and for whom Will would risk anything.

Meanwhile, the student population has fomented rebellion, and the streets are boiling. The embassy is expected to watch these events carefully, and in return, with so much focus on Paris, any diplomatic mistake will quickly become public knowledge. Freddy, like any sensitive soul, realizes something’s up with Will, but he doesn’t know what. A love affair that ended a few months before? The tensions of the job? But before that question can be resolved, Grace Quincy, a world-famous journalist who could pry secrets from a clam without having to open it, blows into Paris. Will, knowing that Grace is trouble and that her flirtatious attentions mean she’s digging for information, nevertheless invites her over. But before that happens, she’s murdered at Père-Lachaise cemetery, of all places, and the police quickly learn that Will’s name is on her dance card. It’s obvious that one side or other had her killed, for reasons of espionage, but who, and why?

Pierre_Mendès_France, the Socialist politician who had helped extricate France from Vietnam, was willing to form a coalition government in May 1968 and listen to the student demands. But the Gaullists increased their power in the next election (courtesy Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Naughtie excels at portraying Paris under siege and the student protests:

. . .the canteen in the student building was filled with a rolling crowd and had the air of a cavernous bar in the early hours, a dance hall with the lights down. There was a group in one corner listening to a guitar, some of them flat out on the floor, and across the room an argument was threatening to turn into a struggle. Somebody ran shouting from the room. At least five people were handing out newspapers and campaign sheets at the door, one of them wearing a Mao cap, the others in black.…Someone was cooking oil. A few on the floor looked as if they’d slept there for days and the place looked like a school gymnasium on a wet afternoon. They’d rigged up an urn to boil water for coffee, and people were pulling stale bread rolls from a cardboard box. Someone had brought in a cat, which sat on top of the jukebox with its tail rigid in the air and its eyes wide.

But good as that is, it’s just the vivid background. The real story involves two families. First, it’s the Flemyngs, and how the brothers balance their feelings and ties against the secrecy demanded by their work, which affects a third, older brother, Mungo. Until reading Paris Spring, I didn’t know I wanted an older brother named Mungo, but it helps that this one is supportive, caring, and paternal, without being pushy or controlling, the family mediator. Mungo comes to know Freddy as well, so there’s plenty of warmth to go around in this coldest of cold-blooded professions.

The other family consists of Will’s allies, foremost among them Freddy, of course, but also others encountered during his travails over Kristof. Rivalries exist, to be sure, but even as temporary friends, they stick together. They know better than anyone else what the power of secrets can do, especially those that may or may not exist, except in rumor. As Freddy tells Mungo, who’s a historian, “You warn your students of the fog of war. Well, I know it to be real. I breathe the fumes.”

Naughtie’s grasp of spydom as a brethren echoes John le Carré, and the same could be said of his focus on characterization. Paris Spring fails to emulate the master in that it resolves with a couple turns that may be too neat; another neatness is how indulgent Freddy is with Will, which strains credulity at times. Nevertheless, Paris Spring is an excellent thriller, elegant in the way le Carré’s are — as few moving narrative parts as possible, a focus on motive instead, and characters who believe in what they’re doing. Bravo.

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

The Elephant in the Seraglio: The Architect’s Apprentice

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Review: The Architect’s Apprentice, by Elif Shafak
Viking, 2014. 424 pp. $28

Jahan, a twelve-year-old Indian boy, arrives in sixteenth-century Istanbul escorting a white elephant, Chota, as a gift for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Since Jahan owes his arrival and new job of elephant trainer to subterfuge and the intercession of a greedy, vicious Christian corsair, the boy’s path won’t be smooth. Nevertheless, as a mixture of ambition, reckless curiosity, and blind naïveté, Jahan carves out a remarkable career in the sultan’s menagerie. He knows little about elephants per se but has a bond with Chota, having grown up with him, and parlays that into a recognized position at the palace. Chota is widely considered the most astonishing beast in the menagerie, so his trainer comes to notice. He even attracts Princess Mihrimar, the sultan’s only daughter, and the two teenagers have a flirtation, mild in itself but serious enough to get him killed — slowly — were the wrong people to find out.

That might be enough adventure for a dirt-poor lad from nowhere special, but there’s more. Jahan receives a palace education and comes to the notice of Mimar Sinan, the Chief Royal Architect, who takes him on as an apprentice, one of four he employs. Between the corsair, who expects Jahan to steal jewels for him; the princess; the rivalry among the apprentices; and the chance to design and construct beautiful buildings with Sinan, The Architect’s Apprentice has plenty of story to keep the narrative moving. Throw in court intrigue, which includes the quaint Ottoman custom in which the newly crowned sultan has his brothers strangled to secure his throne, and there’s a lot going on.

Princova_mešita, or Prince’s mosque, Istanbul, designed by Mimar Sinan (courtesy Ondřej Žváček, via Wikimedia Commons)

This narrative bounty, not to say superabundance, naturally cuts two ways. You get an amazingly broad picture of sixteenth-century Istanbul and an appreciation of how precarious life can be, even — especially — for the very fortunate. Shafak covers theme after theme: religious intolerance, the warfare state, architecture as a philosophy, jealousy, the meaning of love, where true happiness lies, the purpose of genius, and what humans value most. That last notion prompts me to assume that putting a white elephant at the novel’s center is intentional symbolism. Nobody sees Chota’s soul as Jahan does; in fact, they don’t know or care that the beast has one. And if you like, Jahan may even be Melville’s Captain Ahab in reverse, since Chota, his talisman, is purer than any of the greedy, back-stabbing schemers who populate the palace.

But because there’s so much narrative in The Architect’s Apprentice, it’s necessarily episodic. At times, this sweeps you away, like a magic carpet through an exotic world that no longer exists. At others, I want Jahan to grapple more deeply with his black-and-white attitudes. For him, the elephant in the room is how he idealizes those he loves and can’t or won’t see their flaws or the dangers they present to others, himself included. His loyalty is touching, but it can be stubborn too, and he seldom allows others to challenge his code.

Consequently, toward the end, when he comes to realize a few truths he’s been hiding from himself, it feels sudden, dragged in, perhaps. However, Shafak does an excellent job of pulling the disparate pieces together. The episodes lead somewhere, after all, to a conclusion worth waiting for.

The scope and subject demand rich, effortless prose, without artifice or self-consciousness, and Shafak delivers, as with this paragraph describing Jahan’s first look at Istanbul:

Jahan glimpsed partly hidden female faces behind latticed windows, ornamented birdhouses on the walls, domes that caught the last rays of sun and lots of trees — chestnut, linden, quince. Wherever he turned he saw seagulls and cats, the two animals that were given free rein. Perky and pert, the seagulls soared in circles, diving to peck at the bait in a fisherman’s bucket, or the fried liver on a street vendor’s tray, or the pie left to cool on a windowsill. Nobody seemed to mind.

The Architect’s Apprentice offers a look — rare to this reader, at least — of an unfamiliar time and place. Shafak writes with authority and conviction, and the result is a lovely novel.

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

Lock Her Up!: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions

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Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, by Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin, 2017. 365 pp. $26

What profession would someone named Constance Kopp follow besides that of a loyal, hard-working officer of the law? Indeed, Constance is a deputy sheriff in Bergen County, New Jersey, the first woman in the nation to hold such an office, for this is early 1916, when even the notion of a woman wearing a badge and a weapon causes anxious mirth. Her exploits have earned her much attention in the press, which Constance would hate even if the stories recounted the truth or treated her as a serious professional instead of an object of condescending admiration. Worse, she receives marriage proposals by mail from men who write as if they’re doing her a favor. But Constance has no wish to marry and lives with her two sisters, Norma and Fleurette.

As deputy sheriff, Constance is the matron of the Hackensack female jail, a few of whose inmates have swindled, thieved, or attempted murder. But most are young women whose only crime is running away from home to lead an independent life. As the novel opens, there are two such cases, followed quickly by a third. Constance will do her best to protect these women, exceeding her authority if necessary, but the system is rigged. The law will almost certainly bear down on the runaways, accusing them of immorality, mental illness, depraved character, or anything else that sells newspapers and wins votes. Imprisonment without trial in a reformatory is the typical punishment until age twenty-one, after which the woman becomes a ward of the state, which can then decide whether she’s fit to marry, and whom. Sterilization remains a possibility.

Constance has many reasons to struggle against this persecution and the mindset that drives it, some of whose loudest proponents are women. The impulse to lock up independent-minded women has hardly faded since 1916, so Stewart need invent nothing–and in fact, she hasn’t, for the Kopp sisters are real, and so is just about everything that happens in this novel.

The Bergen County Jail, Hackensack, New Jersey, as it exists today (courtesy northjersey.com)

Writing faithfully to history carries several demands, not least to make adherence to fact seem spontaneous rather than inevitable. Stewart succeeds, but the novel’s greatest strength is the sisters’ unusual ménage. They live together in more or less close disharmony, and their battles mirror their conflicts elsewhere. Constance continually squares off against priggish, bossy, unpleasant Norma but most often gives in because Constance is dependent, and Norma manages the household. What? you ask. A deputy sheriff who champions independent women is herself dependent? But out of uniform, Constance is lazy about chores, not terribly disciplined, and a coward — she would rather face down a vicious, prejudiced district attorney than stand up to her own sisters. This is a brilliant stroke, true to the split between the public and private selves that applies to many people, but there’s more. The two elder sisters argue most often about Fleurette, a pretty, spoiled eighteen-year-old who dreams of going on the stage — not one day, but now, a potential runaway right at home.

An image came to mind of Fleurette at the age of nine or ten, when she kept an album of pictures of fashionable people in pretty places. There was a newspaper drawing she particularly liked of debutantes strolling down the Catskill boardwalk under their parasols. She had a little paint set and she colored in all the dresses, making them as bright as peacocks while the world around them was newsprint gray and drab.

Consequently, Constance gives in to Fleurette more easily than Norma does, because she recognizes the spirit to escape expectations, as she did. But another, more important reason is that Fleurette is Constance’s illegitimate daughter, a tightly guarded secret that the girl herself doesn’t know. Without having to say so, Stewart shows that Constance could have been an inmate at the Hackensack jail. So everywhere the deputy looks, she sees her reflection, which gives her a personal stake in everything.

There’s no mystery in Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, nor much detection, yet the tension remains constant. You care about these people’s struggles against inequality, though it must be said that their situations, rather than their characters, compel attention. I understand what Constance and Norma don’t want, and what they’re trying to protect, but not what they dream of in unguarded moments. That lack of yearning keeps the novel from being stronger, more immediate than it is.

Nowhere is that deficit more obvious than Constance’s maternal feelings for Fleurette, which should be more visceral. Her empathy, though powerful and fully earned, is all very well, but however indifferent a mother Constance is, she has that undeniable bond. Doesn’t she wish things were different, or at least, imagine how life would be like if she didn’t have to resort to subterfuge? Perhaps this is why the ending, though satisfying, feels a little tame. Nevertheless, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is witty, entertaining, and thought-provoking, a pretty good combination, in 1916 or now.

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

Humanity Sinks Low: The Winter Station

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Review: The Winter Station, by Jody Shields
Little, Brown, 2018. 334 pp. $27

In Kharbin, a northern Chinese railroad nexus under czarist Russian rule (it’s 1910), dead bodies appear in the streets in ever-increasing numbers. The Baron, the city’s medical commissioner, slowly and methodically deduces that the cause must be plague, and not bubonic, either, but a strain he’s never seen or heard of. However, no one wants to hear it, and though the Baron has connections — he’s an aristocrat, which matters, and he has the ear of General Khorvat, the military governor — he can’t act as quickly or as thoroughly as he’d like. The Baron has also compromised that urgency, however, by coming rather slowly to accept that the deaths are from plague. By the time officialdom concedes the obvious, it’s too late to save the populace. The medical organization belatedly assembled lacks cohesion, common purpose, or even an altruistic outlook. The Baron soon becomes a minority voice for humane policy, sensitivity, duty to heal, and sound science.

Russian, Chinese, and Japanese on Kitaiskaia Street, Kharbin (Harbin), perhaps during the 1920s (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, politics rules, and a hard-hearted goddess she is. The Russian administration cares nothing for the Chinese inhabitants of Kharbin, who, at first, constitute the vast majority of plague victims, and whom the Russians blame for the disease, as though they themselves couldn’t possibly be carriers. What counts is to keep order and please the czar. The Imperial Throne in Beijing (which, incidentally, would be overthrown the following year) cares only for its international prestige. What matters is that the Russian government doesn’t push Chinese medical experts around, and that no foreigner ever criticizes the measures taken. Worse, to supervise those measures, Beijing sends a young, arrogant microbiologist interested only in saving face and advancing his own career. Meanwhile, Japan, victor of the Russo-Japanese war six years earlier, has apparent ambitions in Manchuria that make both other governments nervous.

Shields excels at portraying these conflicts, inevitably personal as well. The Baron, married to a Chinese woman and respectful of Chinese traditions, can never say anything in council without his Russian colleagues calling him a “Chinese lover” and dismissing his views out of hand. Bigotry and dissension are therefore as virulent as the plague, and just as destructive. Kharbin falls apart before the reader’s eyes, and you witness how people progressively cut themselves off from human feeling and connection, as if those qualities too spread contagion.
Against this tide stand the Baron and his few friends, who try to find respite, something to hold onto:

Chinese calligraphy was the Baron’s solace in the evening. On the narrow stage of his desk, under lamplight, a rectangle of white paper was the shape of discipline. He could barely fathom the perimeters of its difficulty, the years of practice, but this elusiveness and uncertainty was part of calligraphy’s seduction. When he was lost, nervous about executing a brushstroke, he had learned to wait calmly until the character was visualized and wavered into shape, opening like a novelty flower of folded paper in water. He sometimes dreamed about written Chinese characters, angular brushstrokes, thick and thin, scattered like dark hay over a field of white paper or his wife’s hair loose against a pale cushion, black as sticks. Paper was a surface with the impermanence of snow.

Shields also depicts elaborate tea ceremonies, in which the doctors summon up pleasant memories as their only defense against despair. Like the calligraphy practice, these scenes are beautifully rendered and very affecting. But The Winter Station feels too brutal to me, seemingly insistent on grinding hope to single molecules, which will then blow away in a stiff wind. Love can’t survive the plague; nothing can. After a while, I felt pounded reading The Winter Station, a mood I never experienced with Albert Camus’s masterpiece, The Plague, or Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, both of which are plenty grim. Shields’s style sometimes aggravates the pounding, as when she’ll write a brilliant scene in which the Baron’s enemies outmaneuver and marginalize him — and then she’ll tell you that’s what they did.

The Winter Station offers vividness, power, and depth. But it’s too bleak for me to recommend wholeheartedly.

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

The Warm-Blooded Detective: The Inheritance

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Review: The Inheritance, by Charles Finch
St. Martin’s, 2016. 294 pp. $26

Charles Lenox, a partner in a thriving London detective agency in the late 1870s, receives a vague plea for help from Gerald Leigh, a friend he’s barely seen since their schoolboy days at Harrow. When Charles looks into the matter, he learns that Gerald has disappeared — and what’s more, may be marked for murder because he’s just come into a sizable, unexpected inheritance.

As a latecomer to the Charles Lenox series, I’m delighted to recommend The Inheritance, not only for itself but as a refreshing change from many mysteries published these days, historical or otherwise. Instead of a sullen, troubled misfit for a sleuth, which has perhaps become a cliché, Finch offers a warm, sensitive protagonist in Charles Lenox, devoted to his wife and their young daughter. Where the typical “amateur” struggles with a grudging Scotland Yard, a conflict that goes back to Conan Doyle, Charles works in concert with the Yard and befriends its officers. (Note that the story takes place before Sherlock Holmes would have hung out his shingle.)

A former member of Parliament, Lenox belongs to the ruling class, and he married an aristocratic wife, yet he chafes at the government’s slowness to enact reforms for the general good. Where the vast majority of Victorian gentlemen would take superiority over women for granted, Charles freely acknowledges that one of his partners, Polly Buchanan, is both a better detective and a more effective executive than he.

A drawing of Burlington House, the London home of the Royal Society, from the Illustrated London News, 1873 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

In fact, this paragon has no discernible faults, unless you count complete boredom at the notion of germ theory, a controversial scientific issue of the day (and one that figures in the mystery). Yet the milk of human kindness makes a winning, comforting drink, even in a tale about greed and murder, and though the ending may be too tidy, how Finch narrates his story adds nuance.

Firstly, nothing ever goes as expected, and I don’t mean just the essential “no — and furthermore” to disappoint Lenox’s hopes. Rather, the narrative presents a stream of surprises, many for the reader, not the protagonist. For example, early on, Charles returns home from an investigation through the snow-bound streets to find “a young woman in a slim gray coat” waiting at his door. A relation? A client? A lover? No; it’s Polly, and you soon find out she runs the show.

Secondly, Finch takes care to give his character strong inner lives. The story of Charles’s unusual friendship with Gerald at Harrow takes up a good portion of the book, yet it doesn’t feel like a discursion or a distraction, and Finch deftly connects it to the main story and uses it to show how Lenox first became interested in detection. That’s a major part of the author’s approach, to explore his characters’ dreams outside the present moment. I also like the way he reveals the depth of feelings, trying to make them specific and concrete, rather than telling you in an abstract phrase:

He would never forget sitting alone in the duke’s grand music room that afternoon. There had been a hundred evenings of amusement and celebration here. Now it was as desolate as an empty ocean, the light going iron gray as the sun faded, the carefully situated picture frames and sofas and silver bowls each reproached by their own frivolity. It was intensely sad. In Lenox’s mind was the business of the next day. The terrible black-edged paper would have to be bought; the terrible black-edged envelopes; the terrible black wax, to seal the news in forever…

Which brings up the question of prose. It’s exuberant without affectation, the dialogue feels natural, and wit punctuates the narrative: “Lenox was rarely in such an acid mood, and Kirk [the butler] inclined his head deferentially to the celebrity of the moment.”

On top of all that, Finch manages to convey the era from the inside, something that many historical mysteries stint on. This novel, however, brings you into the Royal Society, and the fascination with science that hints at why the Victorian Age produced so many discoveries and innovations. As a bonus, you get explanations of words or traditions, such as why the British drive on the left, and Americans, the right. (Hint: It has to do with knights in the first instance, and wagons in the second.)

There are many grittier mysteries around, in which people are naturally vicious, and some of these novels are brilliant. Perhaps The Inheritance goes too far to the other extreme. Yet it remains very appealing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Affair of Honor: The Lost Season of Love and Snow

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Review: The Lost Season of Love and Snow, by Jennifer Laam
St. Martin’s, 2017. 334 pp. $17

He’s almost thirty, already Russia’s greatest poet, passionate, witty, and joyfully charismatic. She’s sixteen, gorgeous in the way that inspires poems, and yearns to free herself from a stifling household and a cruel, domineering mother. Poet and beauty are immediately attracted, and their wish comes true. Yet their marriage turns tragic, for Alexander Pushkin dies after a duel fought to defend his wife’s honor. History has blamed Natalya, because, as this novel argues, no matter what the truth, the woman’s always at fault.

Laam has written biographical fiction from Natalya’s first-person point of view, to set the record straight, and I think she largely succeeds. Yet in service to the argument, the novel occasionally suffers, so though I admire and recommend The Lost Season of Love and Snow, several parts mar the total effect.

Alexander Brullov’s watercolor of Natalya Pushkina, ca. 1831 (courtesy National Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg, via Wikimedia Commons)

The novel begins with Alexander on his deathbed. Since everyone who knows anything about Pushkin knows he lost his life to a duel — and if you don’t know, just read the jacket flap — this puts the author in a bind. Does she reveal this out front, or does she attempt to leave the ending a surprise? Obviously, she chooses the up-front approach, and as prologues go, this one works better than most. Yet the choice demands that all tension thereafter resides entirely in the how, and since we’re told who the killer is, that places a further obstacle in the storyteller’s way. A retrospective risks making every scene superfluous until the villain enters the narrative.

To her credit, Laam does her best to overcome this problem. The courtship sections offer plenty of reversals, and Natalya suffers doubts as to her suitor’s fidelity and whether he sees her only as a bauble to possess. These anxieties create some tension and amplify the theme. Yet I was impatient to get through these scenes, and not only because the real story comes later. Natalya’s mother and two sisters are flat characters, each unfailingly mean-spirited or warm. Though the meanness provides the chance for conflict, we already understand that Natalya can’t wait to escape, so, in a sense, drawing this out serves little purpose. If, however, the author had begun the story with the courtship and suggested foreboding about the upcoming marriage, neither she nor the reader would have had to work as hard.

But the two principal players carry the show, and once they marry, their passion for one another comes through loud and clear. And as a married woman making her way in St. Petersburg society, Natalya feels the danger escalate, and so do we. This web of gossip and intrigue centers on the czar, Alexander’s patron but also a known womanizer, who woos Natalya while thwarting her husband. (Known to history as the Iron Czar, Nicholas I unfortunately comes across in these pages as wooden instead, but at least he’s plenty threatening.) Further, she acquires a reputation as a flirt, not entirely undeserved, though of course nowhere near the way jealous tongues would have it.
Besides, Natalya’s motives are more nuanced than anyone could have understood. As she observes late in the narrative:

More and more, I sought escape from our little family dramas in masquerades.… When I wore my costumes, I was no longer a wife and mother with debts and a distracted husband, but a character from a fairytale, a figure from history — a goddess. Once a group approached me at a ball to tell me how fine I looked, I longed for more people to do so. I was no longer the decorative poet’s wife. For once in my life, I felt valued for myself, not for how well my presence reflected someone else’s glory.

I like this psychological observation, which doesn’t go too far toward feminism for the time, yet sends a message. Even better, I like another gambit Laam tosses out during a flirtation between Natalya and the man who eventually forces Alexander to challenge him to a duel. Distressed by her husband’s spendthrift ways and haphazard work habits, she briefly fantasizes life with the worldly, handsome, wealthy philanderer — unconsciously killing off Alexander, if you will. Natalya immediately draws back, but I wish she’d toyed with her fantasy more persistently, for it would have engaged the boundary between thought and action that causes so much trouble in public misperception. Nevertheless, Laam is being very brave, here, risking her heroine’s reputation in the reader’s eyes. That is the author’s theme, and The Lost Season of Love and Snow tackles it forthrightly.

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

Surrendering to Fear: Munich

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Review: Munich, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2018. 303 pp. $28

Robert Harris has a knack for turning intense historical events into political thrillers, as with An Officer and a Spy (the Dreyfus affair); Aquarius Rising (the destruction of Pompeii); or Dictator (Cicero’s attempt to save the Roman Republic). Harris’s best narratives immerse you so thoroughly that he persuades you to hope that history will unfold less tragically than it does, though you also know that’s impossible. Not only does this make for terrific storytelling, you can see how small moments lead to earth-shattering ones, and therefore how history might have happened differently.

With Munich, about Neville Chamberlain’s pursuit of “peace in our time” in 1938, which dismembered Czechoslovakia for Hitler’s benefit without even consulting the Czechs, Harris hasn’t quite reached those heights. I never for one second doubted that the appeasers would appease, nor did I even dream of them having second thoughts. But I admire Munich nevertheless, as a completely riveting story, with “no — and furthermore” aplenty; a re-creation of an era that leaps off the page; and an ingenious, briskly paced rendering of complex events that somehow doesn’t feel condensed.

With An Officer and a Spy and Dictator, Harris uses historical figures to spearhead his narratives, but in Munich, he can’t. Chamberlain’s cabinet contained only one or two ministers who favored standing up to Hitler, and the prime minister made sure to leave them behind in London. So, without a historical figure to push back and create conflict, Harris invents Hugh Legat, a rising star in the diplomatic corps and a junior private secretary to Chamberlain. Hugh’s growing opposition to appeasement raises the stakes, especially once he gains possession of a state secret that Hitler would kill to protect. Hugh’s opposite number in the German delegation, Paul von Hartmann, is an old friend and former Oxford classmate. He too wishes Britain and France would stand up to the Führer, and belongs to a nascent, disorganized resistance movement that wishes to depose him.

This is why Munich never attains the suspension of disbelief that drives the other novels. We do get a full portrait of Chamberlain in his arrogant stubbornness, dictatorial style, and, to some extent, his vanity, but also his sincere belief that he’s acting in Britain’s interests. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s a sympathetic character, because when you see how lonely he is, you also see the snobbery and bigotry that prompt him to push others away. It’s also one thing to swallow a con job by Hermann Göring and believe that the Luftwaffe could raze London in six weeks, and another to reject, out of hand, any evidence or argument to the contrary. Still, when he claims, pathetically, that he’s also done the right thing for Czechoslovakia, you see how much he wants it to be true. But since he’s immovable, the two underlings, Legat and Hartmann, matter more here, except that they stand at the periphery of history, with little or no power to influence it.

Neville Chamberlain holds the paper that he believes will bring permanent peace to Europe, Heston Aerodrome, London, September 30, 1938 (Imperial War Museum, London, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

However, there are compensations, for the novel revolves around the choices the pair must make and what allegiances they’ll uphold. Hugh’s the more successful characterization – stolid, unspontaneous, but more perceptive than his chiefs, capable of seeing the larger picture and trying to do the right thing in the long run. Yet in his private life, fearful of losing his beautiful, wayward, and mercurial wife, he backs away from confronting her infidelities. Harris never says he’s an appeaser like Chamberlain, but he doesn’t have to, delivering the parallel with a light touch.

Paul von Hartmann’s harder to pin down. He understands Nazism’s mythic power but hates the regime (and, for the longest time, it’s not clear why). Yet he remains a nationalist, a nuance essential to his politics and surely representative, but less clear or convincing on the page. The depth of his former closeness to Hugh (or even that they both attended Oxford) remains a secret from the reader for too long, a lack of authorial generosity that surprises me with this author.

But, as with Hugh, you see Paul’s milieu as clearly as if it were yesterday, and he’s an excellent guide. Typical is this passage about his office mates:

They weren’t such bad fellows, Hartmann thought. He had mixed with their type all his life: patriotic, conservative, clannish. For them, Hitler was like some crude gamekeeper who had mysteriously contrived to take over the running of their family estates: once installed, he had proved an unexpected success, and they had consented to tolerate his occasional bad manners and lapses into violence in return for a quiet life. Now they had discovered they couldn’t get rid of him and they looked as if they were starting to regret it.

If Munich were only a brilliant evocation of the era and its tensions and hopes, the novel would be well worth reading. But it’s more than that, and I heartily recommend it.

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

Less Talk, More Mystery: The Widows of Malabar Hill

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Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey
Soho, 2018. 375 pp. $27

Some books I want to like because their themes speak to my principles, and their premises and storylines promise to teach me something. That’s why I was eager to read The Widows of Malabar Hill, but I wish I could say the novel is anything other than a disappointment.

The year is 1921, and Oxford-educated Perveen Mistry is the first female lawyer in Bombay, and one of the few in India. Since she hasn’t been admitted to the bar, a result of sexism rather than ability, she may not argue cases in court as a barrister but only take depositions and process legal papers as a solicitor. In this capacity, she serves her father’s law firm, and though Perveen wishes she could do more exciting work than read contracts and wills, she’s resigned to it — more or less.

A Zoroastrian fire temple in Udwada, India (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

However, a well-to-do client of her father’s, a Muslim textile-mill owner, has just died, and there are issues concerning the inheritance due his three wives. It looks to Perveen as if a swindle is going on, so someone must talk to the widows. But not only are they in severe mourning, they live in purdah, or seclusion, never leaving the house and certainly not speaking to men. At best, Perveen’s father might obtain a group audience through a grille, but he could never see their faces to gauge whether they were telling the truth or speak to them alone. So Perveen goes in his stead. And what she finds is not only a swindle but conflicting interests within and without the house that will lead to murder.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing. It’s where Massey takes her premise — and how she gets it there — that’s the problem. First of all, the mystery doesn’t really start until page 70 or so, which slows the pace considerably. The rest is back story about Perveen’s romantic history. Though her past explains her intense commitment to justice for women, her parents are actually more interested in seeing her graduate law school than in finding her a husband. Consequently, there’s no push that Perveen must contest, no contrast here to justify the back story, no barrier to overcome. The two plots intersect, but barely, and had Massey dropped the romance, the mystery would have remained intact. Though Perveen’s life experience provides a different cultural context from her legal sleuthing, the theme of women struggling against sexism is already evident, so the romance adds nothing new there.

Nevertheless, Perveen’s past includes some of the most compelling scenes in the book. She’s a Parsi, a descendent of Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India centuries before. Massey has much to say about Parsi customs, culture, and how a (relatively) liberated young woman like Perveen chafes under a tradition that puts men firmly in charge. For instance, under Parsi law at that time, a wife could obtain a divorce on the grounds of infidelity only if her husband had consorted with another married woman, whereas visiting a prostitute was his right. To her sorrow, Perveen learns that no redress exists for virtually any form of marital abuse, unless it threatens her life.

I could have gladly read more of this painful, poignant story of a young woman’s fight to preserve her individuality and freedom against insuperable odds. But even there, I would have liked a subtler narrative technique, the lack of which undoes The Widows of Malabar Hill. Massey has a great deal of information to impart, and I’m happy to learn it, but I prefer not to have it dumped. Too often, characters explain in dialogue what should be shown or implied through action, and though the subject matter and situations are new to me, I find that the stilted, undramatic presentation stifles the story. The rhythm of the plot involves bursts of action followed by lots of talk, and the latter feels heavy after a while.

The mystery therefore suffers, as characters race to and fro, only to stop and exchange information, important parts of which are privileged, conveniently discovered, or withheld from the reader altogether until a key moment. The seemingly obligatory scene in which Perveen confronts the criminal follows two formulas so ancient they’ve grown mold. The culprit not only confesses but does so more volubly than seems plausible. It’s too much talk yet again, the weight that sinks a novel that begins with so much promise.

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

Twelve Angry Men: The Luminaries

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Review: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Little, Brown, 2013. 830 pp. $27

It’s 1866, and Walter Moody has endured a trying journey to Hokitika, New Zealand, the last of his troubles being a shipwreck. All he desires, therefore, is a restful hour or two before a warm fire, so he heads to his hotel’s smoking room. But twelve men occupy this space, and Moody soon learns that he’s blundered into a secret meeting. As he finds out only after they’ve carefully vetted him, a prostitute has attempted suicide; a wealthy young man who was with her hours before has inexplicably disappeared; and an enormous fortune has shown up in the home of a noted drunkard.

The number twelve obviously suggests a jury, and aptly so, because they’ve agreed to pool their information regarding these criminal events. It’s their luck — and Moody’s — that he’s had legal training. At first, he’d rather not participate, for he’s come to Hokitika to pan the gold fields. But his regard for truth and his vanity about his powers of observation draw him in, and he concludes that many of the twelve fear implication, whereas others seem united in their hatred of a key suspect and would love to prove his guilt. The dozen include, among others, a brothel keeper, a jailhouse minister, two Chinese miners, a Maori stone carver, a newspaper editor, a druggist, a banker, and a court clerk.

James Ring’s 1870 photograph of Hokitika (courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, via Wikimedia Commons)

I find this premise irresistible, and the way Catton narrates her story, orchestrating how these disparate lives intersect, is nothing less than breathtaking. Some novels strain too hard have two characters from very different walks of life cross paths — Manhattan Beach comes to mind — but a dozen seamless interweavings breaks the bank, not to mention how Catton involves the four or five other characters who weren’t invited to the meeting, yet play key roles. To be sure, Catton has an advantage in that a nineteenth-century gold-rush boomtown attracts a dizzying panoply of adventurers and hopefuls whose greed, pride, lust, prejudices, self-regard, and dreams provide a potentially rich field in which to prospect. But to make the claim pan out takes diligence and skill, and Catton tells her lengthy, intricate tale with sureness and aplomb.

To do so, she’s chosen a distinctly Victorian epic style, which works, for the most part. Consider this passage from Moody’s point of view, when he recalls the storm he passed through at sea:

The storm began as a coppery taste in the back of one’s mouth, a metallic ache that amplified as the clouds darkened and advanced, and when it struck, it was with the flat hand of a senseless fury. The seething deck, the strange whip of light and shadows cast by the sails that snapped and strained about it, the palpable fear of the sailors as they fought to hold the barque on her course — it was the stuff of nightmare, and Moody had the nightmarish sense, as the vessel drew closer and closer to the gold fields, that she had somehow willed the infernal storm upon herself.
Walter Moody was not superstitious, though he derived great enjoyment from the superstitions of others, and he was not easily deceived by impression, though he took great care in designing his own.

Note the long, looping sentences, the heightened senses, and, at the end, the explanation of character. That last feature takes getting used to, and sometimes I winced when I read such passages. (Part of Catton’s goal is to show how pride, self-presentation, and self-interest obscure truth from the observer, a case she makes convincingly.) But to her credit, Catton carries the style all the way through, depicting a mindset plausible in its time and place, without smelling salts, melodrama, or black-and-white, overdetermined characters. If The Luminaries feels Dickensian, it’s in the episodic chapters that you could envision appearing in serial, and in the way they each begin with a summary (“In which So-and-So does such-and-such”). But the dialogue feels natural rather than strained, despite the scarcity of contractions, and if the prose and tone create a romantic feel, there’s plenty of grit and ugliness to go around.

I don’t understand the attempt to graft astrology onto the narrative, nor do I find that interesting. I skipped the astrological charts before each section and their coyly vague explanations, in which each of the twelve men occupies a single house. After all, it’s a long book, and to me, the charts were a mere distraction. Conversely, odd as it sounds for a book this long, the narrative leaves a couple or three loose ends.

Nevertheless, The Luminaries is a fabulous novel, and, for those who care about awards, it won the Booker in 2013.

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