Finnish Saga: Deep River

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Review: Deep River, by Karl Marlantes
Grove Atlantic, 2019. 717 pp. $30

During the early 1900s, Russia’s hard-fisted rule over Finland prompts violent uprising, met with even harder fists. Aino Koski, a young woman committed to the radical nationalist movement, endures imprisonment before she flees to America, to live with her two brothers in the Pacific Northwest. Aino never forgets her losses, familial or personal — deaths, eviction, destitution, torture — and ascribes them all to capitalism. She’s got an argument, but of course it’s a little neat, as is her solution. Her blind faith in revolution, no matter where or when, and rigid reduction of all situations to the same self-righteous formula, wears on those who love her. To give her credit, as an activist with the infant International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, Aino accomplishes minor miracles organizing the loggers in various camps around the Northwest. But her victories and single-mindedness come at great cost, to herself and others.

Wobbly organizer Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, also called Joseph Hillström, became famous as Joe Hill, thanks in part to the song written after his execution in 1915 (courtesy Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

Deep River lovingly portrays Finnish immigrant society, and you don’t need to read the author’s comment at the end to guess that Marlantes has written about his forebears. You see the men quick to violence if they believe their honor in question, and their stoic, maddening, sometimes hilarious refusal to express anything verbally. The women pick up the pieces, guiding their menfolk through difficult moments like loggers breaking up a jam at a narrow point in the river, offering coffee and cake, subtle redirection, or unexpected steel. They hold their own, but boys will be boys.

Whether these characters’ struggles will catch you completely and take hold depends, I think, on your taste for Marlantes’s narrative style. He does an excellent job weaving labor history into his story, and he shows how management’s hired thugs, captive law enforcement, and recruitment of citizen vigilantes crushes the Wobblies and paints them as the instigators. (Management did such a thorough job at public relations that I had admired the Wobblies for their efforts but deplored their methods, only to read here that they preached nonviolence.) Figures; the victors write the history.

It’s a heartbreaking tale, one well worth learning about, but be warned: There’s plenty of violence, even when the Wobblies don’t appear. Marlantes, ex-Marine captain and author of Matterhorn, a superb Vietnam War novel, excels here, as you’d expect. His action scenes carry an electric charge, and the knowledge that these people can and will do anything just about anytime keeps you riveted. He loves his characters, but he doesn’t protect them.

He also keeps you connected through intense physical detail, especially the mud, danger, and squalor of logging camps; and the landscape, whether before the axes fall or, in the following case afterward:

It looked as if a giant had had a temper tantrum, smashing the gigantic trees into slowly bleaching jackstraw piles of splinters, stumps, and snags, and the occasional lengths of abandoned steel cable, some as thick as a man’s wrist, and broken blocks, heavy, grooved wheels called sheaves encased between two steel cheeks through which the cable was threaded. The stumps took [Aino’s] breath away. Her whole family could stand on top of one of them with room for twenty more people, maybe thirty if some of them sat on the edge and dangled their legs over it.

As a Northwest resident (and a tree hugger and hiker), I find these descriptions moving, portraits of what the region looked like before greed and demand for wood got the upper hand.

But Deep River disappoints in a couple significant respects. Aino comes across fully, though I expected more psychological scarring from the torture she received in prison, particularly regarding physical affection from men. Her two brothers and their friends Aksel and Jouka also earn complete portrayals, but the others seem more like figures known for a trait or two. All the women besides Aino are strong, which I appreciate, and they have their moments. Yet I’m not always sure what makes them tick.

More importantly, Marlantes’s way of telling emotions gets in my way. Often, he creates a marvelously tense confrontation, building the drama, only to let the air out with a sentence like: “They stood, looking at each other, love pouring from their eyes.” Deep River’s length and breadth may beg for economy in places — the narration essentially goes until the early 1930s — but these moments deserve their weight, and Marlantes’s descriptive prowess clearly measures up to the task. I just wish he had exercised it.

So take Deep River for what you will, a wonderful story shortened at crucial points, or an involving saga of blood and heroism in rough country.

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

Past Lives: Old Baggage

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Review: Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans
Harper, 2018. 310 pp. $16

Matilda Simpkin lives in a glorious, thrilling past as an activist for women’s suffrage, who, before the First World War, rubbed elbows with the Pankhursts and threw elbows at policemen trying to subdue her. But it’s now 1928, and London life has dulled for Mattie. She lectures from time to time on the old days, for she has priceless lantern slides of the movement and can talk about what it was like to be imprisoned at Holloway, the infamous jail where suffragists were tortured, out of the public eye. An elegant, passionate, witty speaker, she’s quick on her feet and quicker to remind her audiences that women under thirty still can’t vote in Britain, nor those of age who lack the property qualifications. So Mattie still has her cause, her sisters in need, and the energy to lend a hand.

Annie Kenney, left, and Christabel Pankhurst, founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Manchester, ca. 1908 (photo courtesy Hastings Press via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But nobody’s paying attention, really, and that’s Mattie’s problem. Not only has her generation lost its fire; she needs to feel listened to, be the center of attention, to mentor others. However, she can be too quick to offer solutions to their problems and too slow to hear their silent plea simply for an understanding ear; and her urge to fix people, whom she sees as acolytes, can make her impossible. She assumes that those who turn away must be complacent or scared of risk, never dreaming that she herself scares them, or that the way she comes across subverts her efforts. In other words, Mattie Simpkin is a good-hearted, committed narcissist, and though such people often make waves, they don’t always pay attention to those who fear drowning in them.

Picture, then, her attempt to teach the younger generation. She forms a girls’ club called the Amazons, which meets weekly near her home on Hampstead Heath, for intellectual and physical exercise, learning and cooperative games. Who’d bother to join a club run by a windbag feminist of yesteryear? Dozens, as it turns out, a victory that Mattie accepts as a matter of course, and she thrives in her role. Despite her pedantry and occasional lack of sensitivity, both of which can be hilarious, she has much to teach, as relevant now as it was then: As a girl, you’re a real person, and you can make a difference. Her students aren’t always sure what this means, but most like the sound of it, and things go fine until a particular girl shows up, one who evokes the past. On such small incidents, worlds turn.

As you find out only at the end, Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Hearts, has a tangential connection to Old Baggage. I liked Crooked Hearts, but I like the current book better. It’s more serious yet funnier at once, which sounds odd until you notice that the tone here lacks all consciousness of satire, and the characters feel deeper. They have no sense that anyone should laugh at them, because they believe what they’re doing is utterly important. But our heroine needs a sidekick, one who’s more tuned in, and Florrie Lee (called The Flea), fills the role perfectly. The women are sparring partners in both heart and in politics, and though there’s social commentary aplenty, I never think it’s over the top or pasted on. It’s part of the action.

But it’s Mattie who drives the book, eccentric, principled, and flawed. As one of her less enthusiastic charges in the Amazons observes:

Miss Simpkin… had a face as readable as a penny newspaper, enthusiasm and exasperation, encouragement and the odd gust of rage chasing across her features. ‘Thar she blows!’ some of the bolder girls would whisper, as Mattie sounded off about Mussolini, or dogs with docked tails, or vegetarians.… Miss Simpkin was peculiar. Normal people stayed indoors when it rained, and thought that nice stockings were important; they didn’t sing in public, they didn’t pick up frogs and tell you about Greek plays.

Besides the sense of humor visible on almost every page, Evans has a knack for capturing historical ages and scraping the sepia off them. She understands politics and social movements from the inside and how they look from the outside. Likewise, the difficulties Mattie faces in her quest to educate the young reveal obstacles inside her and in others, so that her inner narrative connects to the outer, seamlessly accomplished.

Old Baggage is a delightful, moving book, and I recommend it.

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

The Prophet of Desire: The Dream Peddler

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Review: The Dream Peddler, by Martine Fournier Watson
Penguin, 2019. 370 pp. $16

Sometime in the early 1900s, a stranger comes to an unnamed American rural town. His name is Robert Owens, and the winter day he arrives, a young boy goes missing. Robert, though a newcomer, volunteers to help search, which creates a favorable first impression. He also dresses well, has courtly manners that people aren’t used to, and an engaging, unpretentious acceptance of human foibles, a trait that, as events prove, they’re used to even less.

Naturally, they wonder why he’s come, and whether he has designs on the widow in whose boardinghouse he lives. He doesn’t. He’s a traveling salesman, of sorts, and his product is dreams. Once word gets out, which happens slowly, he’s taken at first for a huckster and a charlatan, but he’s neither. Not once does he push his product (which comes in the form of colored liquids in glass vials), nor does he promise the sun, moon, and stars. When prospective customers approach him, he asks what they’d like to dream, decides whether he can help, and, if the answer is yes, mixes his elixirs for them, offering a money-back guarantee.

Freud’s first version of The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899, in a print run of 600 copies that took eight years to sell out (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Robert’s an itinerant psychologist, in other words, and the town needs his services. Animosities and untapped desires abound, none of which must be thought of, or, heaven forbid, spoken about. Indirectly, Robert encourages his customers, who include the lovelorn, frustrated, bereft, ambitious, and heartbroken, to feel what has long lurked inside them. Not everybody believes him when he explains that dreams come from within and can’t predict the future, only provide a test version of it. They think he’s selling what they don’t have but can somehow acquire.

I love this premise and what Watson does with it. She’s made Robert a prophet of desire, and beneath his tolerant, wise exterior lies a deep shame and, perhaps, moral cowardice. He represents the notion that desire alone never hurts; it’s what you do with it that counts. I agree wholeheartedly, but many people don’t, and Watson’s fictional town is no exception, starting with the preacher, who believes Robert does Satan’s work.

Consequently, despite the liberation that many customers experience from their dreams, you sense that Robert will wear out his welcome, and you may even guess how that unfolds. Nevertheless, the how matters more than the what, for The Dream Peddler fairly glows with feeling, a narrative as irresistible as I’ve read in a long while. With great subtlety, Watson renders the complexities of small-town rural life, while modernity licks around the edges, scaring some and enticing others. I said the novel takes place in the early 1900s, but the only substantial clue is the lone automobile in town, a Ford belonging to the doctor, presumably a Model T. The way in which a few characters itch to see the world while others prefer to keep it at bay depicts a state of mind about to change: the twentieth century and its marvels and tragedies.

It’s hard to believe that The Dream Peddler is a first novel. Even without the sure-handed characterizations and storytelling, the prose would suggest an experienced pen. Consider this passage, about a man out cutting ice alongside his horse, Martha, to store in his ice house for the summer (itself a wonderful detail):

Charles came into that familiar thinning of the trees, and then the vastness of the ice spread out before him. Far away it was uncertain, rippled in places from the water’s unseen movement, but here where he stood closer to shore it was still thick and faithful. Martha walked onto it without fear, nostrils quivering in the cold… Ice cutting was hard work, but Charles enjoyed it. He was always enthralled by the white precision of the blocks as he lifted them from their hold, like marble destined for the walls of some exotic palace in a land he would never see.

Reading the name Robert Owens, I couldn’t help think of Robert Owen, the nineteenth-century Welsh industrialist and social reformer who founded a short-lived utopian socialist community in Indiana. Does Watson’s Robert have a utopian vision of desire? Unfortunately, yes.

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

Blood, Royal and Otherwise: The Darwin Affair

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Review: The Darwin Affair, by Tim Mason
Algonquin, 2019. 373 pp. $28

The year 1859 witnesses an event that shakes England — and the Western world — to the core: the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Mason’s ingenious, exquisitely plotted, and atmospherically rich thriller supposes that the uproar over Darwin’s theory and an attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria has a nefarious connection. Further, Mason takes Charles Field, a real-life historical figure, as the detective who uncovers the connection, what it means, and who’s behind it, men in high places. Naturally, practically no one believes Field’s conspiracy theory, though one person willing to entertain the notion — however fanciful — is Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort, and, by the by, a Darwin supporter.

Charles Field, as he appeared in Illustrated News of the World, London, 1855

Charles Field was Charles Dickens’s model for Mr. Bucket of the Detective, a character in Bleak House, among the first such fictional figures. It’s a brilliant conceit to build a novel around Field, but Mason goes one better. Field hates his fame as Bucket’s alter ego, and the surest way to inflame this bad-tempered detective is to call him Bucket or taunt him by suggesting that his fictional shadow would have solved the case before now. The Darwin Affair therefore begins with both feet in the shifting sands of mythic allusion versus deadly reality, and whether a person is who he is or what others take him for. From there, things get even more complex.

Field’s nemesis styles himself the Chorister, and an evil piece of work he is. I usually avoid suspense narratives with sociopaths, because the story’s thoroughly gruesome, and I can’t stand it when an outwardly decent citizen is suddenly unmasked as a raving lunatic responsible for multiple murders. But here, you know the Chorister’s a bad one from the get-go, and the plot revolves around stopping him when so many people fail to realize the danger he poses, a classic device in thrillerdom. Once again, however, Mason goes one better. The Chorister has handlers who think themselves righteous, which shows their utter hypocrisy; and they believe they can control him, about which they’re dreadfully wrong. Rest assured, plenty of tension results. In a final stroke, the psychological source of the Chorister’s bloodlust is revealed, and plausibly, which raises him yet another notch above a mere device.

I admire how Mason imbues his narrative with history as inhabited background. I don’t mean the presence of historical figures like the royals, Darwin, Dickens, Thomas Huxley, or Karl Marx, though Mason handles them all beautifully. (Field’s confrontation with Marx is a real hoot.) Rather, I mean going beyond the People magazine fascination with name recognition to grapple with the era’s ethics, passions, and preoccupations, and to render the everyday, even at the palace. Albert’s perpetually cold because the queen hates central heating, and candles and oil lamps are the order of the day because she finds gaslight too modern. The author can’t resist a witticism, and I’m glad of that, because otherwise, we’d have done without this gem from Albert about his better half: “And, to be frank, Victoria would not approve of any assassination attempt in which she was not the target.”

Fittingly, Darwin’s theory takes center stage in this rendering of midcentury Victoriana. As everyone knows, the church objects, but the conflict feels broader than that. Evolution has subversive implications for the social hierarchy, which also seems obvious in retrospect, but has somehow faded from sight. If we share a common ancestry, and random chance happeneth to us all, who’s to say that the peer deserves his peerage, and the laundress her bleached, burning fingers? That question will never go out of style.

Interestingly, Field himself reads The Origin of Species, a struggle because he hasn’t had much education, yet he derives a great deal from it.

If I understand what Mr. Darwin is saying, a creature will do anything at all in order to survive. And every creature that does make it does so because some other creature don’t. Everything and everyone at war all the time, just to keep the show going, and it’s been a very long-running show indeed. Look at it that way, nothing matters, really.… Look at it another way, of course, it makes every second we got desperate precious.

Make no mistake, The Darwin Affair is a gory book. But it’s also the most gripping thriller I’ve read in years, so if you don’t mind the blood and mutilation, you’ll be well rewarded.

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

Well, What Do You Know?: The Organs of Sense

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Review: The Organs of Sense, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
FSG, 2019. 227 pp. $26

In 1666, nineteen-year-old Gottfried Leibniz, not yet famous for inventing calculus, visits an unnamed astronomer who, alone in the scientific universe, has predicted a solar eclipse that will darken Europe for four seconds. Since the astronomer is rumored to have the longest telescope in the world, yet also to be blind, Leibniz wants to know whether the eclipse will really happen, and the man is for real. If he’s for real, and he’s blind, how can he observe the heavens, longest telescope or no? Or does he actually see, and is he sane? Or does he see, and is he insane? Does the truth or falsity of the eclipse affect any of these judgments? The possible combinations are many; you get the picture.

Now, when I tell you that Leibniz doesn’t directly narrate the story — an unnamed scholar/philosopher/scientist does, based on Leibniz’s account — you might think this tale is drier than a dust ball, a real snore, even in its slim length. Yet The Organs of Sense is seriously gripping and very funny at the same time. Start this book, and amazingly, like Leibniz, you’ll want to know, have to know, whether the eclipse will happen, how the astronomer lost his sight, and what Leibniz (and his interpreter) make of all that they relate.

A thinner premise could not be imagined, and yet on that Occam’s razor, much gets sliced apart, perhaps never to appear whole again in reputable print. Many philosophical themes reside in these pages, among which: how does a person “know” anything; which deserves to triumph, emotion or reason; what exactly constitutes insanity; what does blood mean variously to a commoner and a prince; and what’s the purpose of art.

But all this philosophy has a screw loose. The language and the reasoning both parody the discipline as well as apply it, and the best word to describe the whole effect is madcap. You could open the novel practically anywhere to see what I mean, but this passage stands out for me:

Have you noticed, Herr Leibniz, how our most celebrated scientists of the sentiments always possess the crudest understanding of laughter? I have seen laughter taxonomies that bundle together the giggle, the chortle, and the titter, or the chortle, the titter, the snicker, and the hoot. Even in Delft, where they have a superb understanding of tears, they do not distinguish between a whoop, the cackle, the guffaw, the hoot, and the hee-haw. Of course, the hee-haw has nothing to do with the hoot, and the whoop is not even a species of laughter at all! A man who confuses whimpering and weeping is rightly excluded from the circle of learned men, we demand very fine distinctions on the tragic side of life, yet someone who considers a hee-haw a hoot may still be regarded as an eminent authority on the nature of the world.

It’s all much ado about nothing, and yet, there’s meat here. There is also a historical context. Many of the scenes the astronomer recounts to Leibniz take place at the Prague castle of Emperor Rudolf, who indeed behaves as if he’s out of his mind, and involve his intelligent but highly stressed children. Rudolph has figured in fiction before, as with The Fifth Servant and, more recently, Wolf on a String, but here, he’s dissected, minutely, with Kafkaesque humor, as are his family and their various conspiracies.

The Organs of Sense thus makes a witty tale that goes around the bend and meets itself coming and going. Sometimes the prose repeats, but seldom, if ever, does it tire the reader; Sachs is making a point about long-winded philosophers who seek precision until it becomes meaningless. But in that search also lies several truths, one of which is that human life is largely absurd.

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

Prisoners: Caging Skies

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Review: Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens
Overlook, 2019. 304 pp. $26

Johannes Betzler might be like most Viennese boys of the late 1930s. He joins the Hitler Youth, in which he takes great pride, and swallows the Nazi message whole, much to his parents’ dismay. When the war comes, it’s his turn to be dismayed, for he figures out that they’re hiding a young Jewish woman, Elsa, behind a false wall upstairs. Outraged at first, he barely contains himself until, after being disfigured by a bomb during an enemy air raid, he becomes interested in Elsa and, later, consumed by her. When his parents disappear, and his grandmother, who lives in the house, becomes demented, he must care for Elsa’s needs by himself. And Johannes’s obsession grows so great that as the war’s end nears — he expects a Nazi victory — he wonders how to keep her, or what their relationship will be like.

From this simple, bizarre premise comes a bold novel of great fierceness, insight, and emotional savagery. I admire Leunens’s refusal to spare anyone or anything, even as, while reading, I sometimes had to put the book down and pace around the room. But if you stick with Caging Skies, this is what you’ll get. With a sweep reminiscent of A Gentleman in Moscow (and therefore Tolstoy), but decidedly without the humor, kindness, or generosity — this is the Holocaust — Leunens creates a microcosm of Hitlerian thought inside Johannes’s head. The truism about scratching a bully and finding beneath an ineffectual, strutting egotist secretly scared of his inadequacy emerges front and center.

Where other novelists (or historians) tell you that the Nazi creed attracted certain personalities, Leunens shows you why and how. It’s absolutely remarkable how she exposes Johannes as a pitiful, self-satisfying beast, casting the world in his own image, twisting all he sees to fit his vision of himself as victim. This is pure narcissism, but it’s more than that — it’s the far-right mindset, us-versus-them culture, and ultranationalism; that the portrayal seems so vivid and relevant is frightening in itself.

Throughout, Leunens’s prose drives relentlessly forward, as with this passage about Johannes’s training with the Hitler Youth:

In one exercise we were to kill a pen of ducks by twisting their necks with our bare hands. It was stressful because once we freed the latch they came to us in trust and quacked as if we could understand exactly what it was they wanted. One of the ducks was followed by a dozen ducklings and they had to be killed too. It was as if they were asking us to kill our own childhood, somehow. If a boy cried after the deed was done he was so thoroughly mocked that no one wanted to be in his shoes. He ate fowl like everybody else and would enjoy the duck once it was on his plate after others had worked to prepare it, wouldn’t he? He was then nothing but a whimpering hypocrite, a good for nothing!

If I may be clinical for a moment about this chilling scene, notice how the author uses the entire setup as a metaphor, which Johannes literally expresses as killing his own childhood. I like how Leunens employs this technique, sparingly, but to excellent effect, letting the action create the image and then lightly directing the brushstroke — or not.

A central theme of Caging Skies has to do with truth, lies, and being able to tell the difference. Johannes loses his way in that maze right off, though he thinks he doesn’t, and he’s never sure how much anyone knows about him, his thoughts, or secrets that may or may not belong to him alone. Gradually, he comes to sense that the ground may give way any moment, which is how his feelings about Elsa change from revulsion to desire, and more.

But that’s where the novel falters, I think. Their relationship raises several questions, and if Leunens has answered them the way I infer she has, I have my doubts. Is she trying to say that the Jews’ murderers actually love them? Or is it the lust of possession, in which complete power over someone, enough to allow you to dispose of them, makes you feel in love with yourself? I’d sooner believe the second, but in Johannes’s case, he appears to go further — to the extent that he can love anyone.

In reverse, the relationship makes even less sense. To an extent, I understand identifying with the aggressor, but some of what happens tests credulity. And if Leunens is trying to have Elsa stand in for all Jews, that representation feels grotesque and unearned.

But there’s no denying that Caging Skies is an extraordinary novel, and that its author has ranged widely within a contained physical space to tell a penetrating story.

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

Orgy on the Shore: Cape May

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Review: Cape May, by Chip Cheek
Celadon, 2019. 243 pp. $27

In 1957, Henry and Effie, married straight out of a small-town Georgia high school, honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. Borrowing a cousin’s cottage, they arrive at the end of September to find the town deserted — naturally, because it’s a place where the well-to-do summer, and now they’re gone. That’s only the first fact to surprise the innocent, unsophisticated newlyweds, and Effie’s instinct is to go home after a couple days. But Henry, unsure of her, though they’ve known each other for years — he can’t quite believe that the mayor’s daughter chose him — takes her notion to mean that she doesn’t want his company. That insecurity leads to much trouble and the discovery that the Jersey shore is much farther from rural Georgia than the mere distance indicates.

A group of city sophisticates welcomes them next door to a nonstop party, though absorb would be a fitter word. Max, a sometime writer, heir to a shipping fortune, and a lewd drunk, drives the festivities with his lover, Clara, who was in show business at one time. Alma, Max’s sullen, gorgeous half-sister, acts as though she’d rather be anywhere else, but she draws Henry’s eye. At first, he’s more susceptible to this crowd’s invitations than his bride, attracted by the veneer of “civilization,” as he calls it, what these mildly degenerate Yankees represent to him. And in that fever, he loses his common sense and his moral compass, helped by a power outage after a storm (something of a cliché, there).

Cheek’s a terrific observer, especially of social interactions and sexual mores. What could have been a stagey, turgid domestic drama stewing in its own juices feels surprisingly open, fluid, and freewheeling. This requires a subtle touch, the ability to evoke movement even when people are sitting still, and simmering tension below the surface, at all of which Cheek excels. Throughout, there’s a sexual charge, like a humid summer day before a thunderstorm. All of these elements derive from the prose, which does its work simply, never calling attention to itself, yet conveys the mood in vivid, active images:

Through the big windowpanes, now that the inside was brighter than the outside, Henry could see more people gathering in the den, big groups of them, laughing, sipping from martini glasses, smoking cigarettes. He saw the beatnik in the slip take her shoes off and hand them to a man who placed them into a potted plant. He saw a naked toddler run screaming from the archway. He saw an Oriental woman with a complicated bun and a silvery eye shadow. He saw a man with circular sunglasses and a shaved head under a beret.… For the past week he’d felt isolated from the world, and now the world was upon him, or some strange version of it.

For all that, though, Cape May falls short of memorable. I understand Henry, somewhat, but Effie hardly at all, and the sophisticates even less. They seem too brittle to feel anything, rushing from experience to experience to prevent what they most fear, boredom. I would have wanted flashes of depth, glimmers of what they’re trying not to face; though, since the newlyweds provide the only perspectives as naïve observers, that’s difficult to achieve. Cheek seems to be saying that the Georgians’ innocence is also a veneer, that they share their new friends’ desires, and we’re all the same underneath, city mouse or country mouse.

That’s fine, but absent fuller characterizations or any particular connection to time and place — if it weren’t for clothing styles or brief mentions of current events, I would never have known it was the late Fifties — we’re left with what sex means, or what it means to Henry, Effie, and the reader. And as for sex, there’s plenty of it, licit and otherwise. Cheek does well to make the scenes matter-of-fact and realistic — no breathless, inflated bodice-ripper descriptions — though I do wonder how these people manage to get it on after half a dozen gins-and-tonic.

Cheek’s a fine writer whose subject matter and theme remind me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, also about newlyweds clueless about marriage. But the people in Cape May seem more a collection of attitudes than complex humans, and their plight therefore less than powerful.

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

The Future’s a Riddle: The Almanack

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Review: The Almanack, by Martine Bailey
Severn, 2019. 328 pp. $29

In midsummer 1752, Londoner Tabitha Hart accepts a rendezvous at an inn with a well-to-do gentleman who promises to be an easy mark, only to waken and realize she’s the one fleeced. The loss of her money, jewels, and clothes proves more than a usual setback in the sex-and-petty-theft trade, for Tabitha was planning to bring her mother funds she desperately needs, for herself and the care of Tabitha’s out-of-wedlock daughter, Bess. Worse, when the destitute, half-dressed Tabitha reaches her mother’s cottage in the village of Netherslea, to her shock, her mother’s recent letters pleading for help prove all too prophetic. Mrs. Hart has drowned in the river, a death her daughter refuses to credit, especially given the constable’s explanation, that the old lady’s mind had grown infirm, and she didn’t know where she was going half the time.

Consequently, much as Tabitha longs to return to London, she must restore her mother’s reputation — there are whispers of suicide — and see justice done. Her only clue is her mother’s almanack, in which appear warnings about a certain D, said to be untrustworthy and dangerous. However, Tabitha has few illusions about remaining in her native village, where her reputation is mud, and the sanctimonious, vindictive Parson Dilks would like nothing better than to drive her away. He applies pressure to take the cottage away, because it was granted to her mother as the village “searcher,” the one who laid out dead bodies, inspected them for cause of death, and wrote the results in parish records. Through the intercession of more kindly souls, Tabitha is allowed to inherit her mother’s position, and therefore the cottage, but only temporarily, and Dilks finds other ways to persecute her.

A book of incantations, 1825, from the library of John Harries (d. 1839), a Welsh astrologer and medical practitioner (courtesy National Library of Wales, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Complicating the picture is Nat Starling, a swaggering lush who scratches out a living writing scurrilous stories about true crime and debauchery. Naturally, he falls for Tabitha’s beauty and intelligence right away, whereas he’s just the sort of man who has always been poison to her, which is why she feels drawn to him as well. But she won’t give him what he wants unless and until he helps her solve the mystery about her mother, which he seems to wish to do anyway, having been a friend of hers. But, as with everyone else in Netherslea, Tabitha can’t be sure of Nat, and his dissolute habits raise further doubts.

The Almanack offers a clever mystery, with twists and turns (and “no — and furthermore”) aplenty. Bailey’s a fine storyteller, but she’s done more than build a clockwork plot that keeps striking an odd hour, serving to heighten the tension. Rather, she’s re-created the lore of village life, with its superstitions, back-biting, and feast of gossip. She’s also paid due tribute to feminism, as Tabitha bitterly resents the double standard that calls her a whore but allows men license to do what they wish, further granting them credibility as witnesses that she can never hope to earn.

This intricate homespun tapestry begins with active description, as with Tabitha’s first glimpse of Netherslea on her return:

The riverside path was deserted that morning; from the golden motes in the air, she guessed most folk must be hay-making. Crossing a well-remembered meadow, she drank at an icy brook and breakfasted on bilberries fresh from the earth; the taste of them, tartly sweet, was fresher than any food she had eaten in years. Thereafter her way grew easy and she passed the succeeding miles serenely. She had forgotten the lushness of the Cheshire sward in midsummer; the murmur of insects on the wing, the wildflowers that bedizened her path. Idly she picked meadowsweet, wild rose and ragged robin, twining them into a chain and then winding it in a circlet through her hair.

Bailey takes her carefully delineated ambience one step further. Having researched the eighteenth-century passion for almanacks, which were recycled predictions published yearly and simply plugged into different dates, she makes excellent use of them here. Not only does the infamous D deliver on the ghoulish prognostications in the local almanack, Bailey introduces each of her short chapters with riddles in verse, which contemporary almanacks contained, and which were devoured avidly. The fifty riddles Bailey has chosen — most anonymous, but a few credited to Jonathan Swift, among other notables — predict some aspect of the episode to come. Since the mystery itself is a riddle, and solved through one, everything connects. And that’s part of the delight in The Almanack, which, despite an occasional cliché of character, makes a satisfying tale.

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

What a Mystery Is Man: The Phoenix of Florence

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Review: The Phoenix of Florence, by Philip Kazan
Allison & Busby, 2019. 349 pp. 15£

Onorio Celavini, one of sixteenth-century Florence’s two police inspectors (to use a broad term), has a typical case on his hands, or so it seems. Near a bridge, a man lies dead, the apparent victim of a gang attack, for he’s taken two of his assailants with him. Known as a seducer of other men’s wives, he’s unmourned in many circles, but as a wealthy, powerful aristocrat, his death matters to officialdom — more so when a well-born woman dies soon afterward, the crimes apparently connected.

Celavini has heard this all before and is sick of it; whatever a man has done, a woman winds up paying for it. But that’s life, in Florence or elsewhere, and orders are orders — solve this case, and quickly. So he bends his considerable skills to the investigation, aided by an enviable coolness in the face of danger, product of his years as a mercenary, and his knowledge of Tuscany and its politics, lessons that any successful soldier imbibes in the field.

Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of a condittiero, or mercenary captain, late fifteenth century (courtesy Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery, Washington DC, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, Celavini gets a surprise when he hears a familiar name associated with the crime, one he knew in his youth but had thought extinct. That brings these murders close to home. But though the investigator’s personal involvement is an old device, it’s different here. Unlike most mysteries, the real puzzle is Celavini himself, and The Phoenix of Florence tells a tale more of revenge than of who done it, more Count of Monte Cristo than Sherlock Holmes.

Don’t let that stop you, and don’t be surprised when the criminal investigation leaves off, and a long section of Celavini’s past takes over — for more than half the book. Kazan is less interested in who killed whom than in why men and women are the way they are, the greatest mystery there is. And I strongly suggest that if you let yourself follow his lead, you will be richly rewarded. Human nature, venal or honest, evil or benign, comes into full view, but the crux of the novel, I think, has to do with strength, weakness, and who perceives them, that perception often having deeper consequences than it should. What Celavini does with this provides both a satisfying story and a fitting ending.

It’s a brave author who departs for two hundred pages from the main narrative, and my regular readers may recall that I faulted Daniel Mason in The Winter Soldier for a much shorter digression. But much as I admire that novel and its author, he had a different purpose. Celavini’s past is the main story. I’ll say that it’s rather violent, so be warned, but I dare give nothing else away — The Phoenix of Florence tests this reviewer’s mettle — so I hope you trust me by now.

One way Kazan grips you, digression or not, is the prose. So many historical novels have been set in Florence (or Venice) that they’re practically a trope by now. But try this:

It was stiflingly hot, and the miasma of the dyeworks and the river mud had finally managed to creep into the house. The stench curled itself around me, ripe with rot and sharp with minerals, as clinging and insistent as the memories that wandered through the empty rooms, whispering in my ears. My nightshirt felt like a lead sheet and itched. When I sat down, the wood of the chair seemed to suck my skin. I went out into the courtyard, but the air was thicker there, and a rat was fidgeting around in the dry fronds of the date palm. At last I lay down on the flagstones in the kitchen and floated in a twilight where the cold stone brought relief but was painful as well; however, I couldn’t have one without the other.

I wish I could say more, but I shouldn’t. Read The Phoenix of Florence and be amazed.

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

Rusalka: The Huntress

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Review: The Huntress, by Kate Quinn
Morrow, 2019. 531 pp. $27

In spring 1946, memories of the war are just beginning to fade — for some. Seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride, who lives with her widowed father in Boston, meets his new fiancée, an Austrian widow. Jordan welcomes her future stepmother and half-sister Ruth and takes them into her heart, luxuriating in the warmth and support she receives in return. Even better, Jordan’s stepmother encourages her to dream of higher education, something Dad doesn’t think a girl needs.

Four years later, in 1950, former British war correspondent Ian Graham; his assistant and translator, Tony Rodomovsky, an American; and Nina Markova, a former pilot with the Red Air Force, join forces in Vienna to track down Nazi war criminals. The Nuremberg Trials have focused on the big fish, but thousands of minnows have swum to safety, whether in various corners of Europe or the New World. They may be former assassins, concentration-camp guards, or petty functionaries who oiled the machinery of murder and appropriation, and Ian and Tony want them all, though they know that’s impossible.

Rare color photo of defendants at Nuremberg, taken by Raymond D’Addario, November 1945 (courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Nina, however, wants one in particular, a woman nicknamed die Jägerin (The Huntress), with whom she has a score to settle. So does Ian; and in one of the strange but clever twists in this thriller, Nina and Ian are married, though they’ve met only once, five years before for a couple days, and haven’t seen each other since.

Confused? Read The Huntress, and you won’t be. Quinn’s a fine storyteller, and she does an excellent job of stitching together many disparate pieces to make a coherent, exciting whole. The pages turn quickly, nothing happens too easily (except for a happy coincidence or two toward the end), and the stakes are plenty high enough. The reader knows long before the main characters who die Jägerin is, and where, but Quinn strings the inevitable confrontation out beautifully.

Of all the essential elements, I like the plot of The Huntress best. I do salute Quinn for calling attention to the problems of tracking down war criminals after Nuremberg, a forgotten cause. And I also like her attempt to explore the means one is permitted to use to see justice done. Ian rejects violence; Tony wouldn’t mind slapping around a witness or three; and Nina always carries a knife.

She’s the most interesting, fullest character by far. She’s done her best to amputate her heart, yet she comes across in part because she’s the only one with a developed past. Born by the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, she styles herself a rusalka, a water witch, the type who drags down the unsuspecting victim. That lake figures heavily in her psyche:

The lake was frozen in a sheet of dark green glass, so clear you could see the bottom far below. When the surface ice warmed during the day, crevasses would open, crackling and booming as if the lake’s rusalki were fighting a war in the depths. Close to shore, hummocks of turquoise-colored ice heaved up over each other in blocks taller than Nina, shoved onto the bank by the winter wind.… Nina stood in her shabby winter coat, hands thrust into her pockets, wondering if she would still be here to see the lake freeze next year. She was sixteen years old; all her sisters had left home before they reached that age, mostly with swelling bellies.

Nina’s half-savage, knows it, and likes scaring her friends. But scaring her enemies feels even better, for in a life lived without sweetness, revenge is the only substitute.

The other characters don’t grab me particularly. Jordan, though she represents feminism in wanting a photojournalism career, lacks angles or corners and seems too all-American. Tony’s too good to be true, a composition of charm, chutzpah, and linguistic wizardry. (The narrative rather dubiously depends on the relative ease with which certain characters pick up, say, fluent German or Russian in a matter of months.) Ian feels like a compendium of elements rather than a complete person, and though his heart’s in the right place, I don’t entirely believe him.

But the story’s the thing, here, and aside from the occasional detail that makes me raise an eyebrow (having mostly to do with photography or firearms), Quinn has researched her ground thoroughly. I note a few present-day idioms that someone should have flagged, and too many bizarre verbs replace said, often followed by unnecessary explanations of what the character means by what she says. But The Huntress is a top-notch thriller with an unusual premise, and I think it’s worth your time.

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