Charles Finch, Eleanor Catton, Elizabeth H. Winthrop, James Brydon, James Naughtie, John Banville, Kenneth Wishnia, M. J. Carter, Nicole Lundrigan, Robyn Cadwallader, Tim Pears
This week, Novelhistorian turns four, which means I’ve reviewed more than two hundred books. As many of you know, each year I write a post in which I mention, in thumbnail, those that have made the deepest impression on me–or, to put it another way, those I expect I’ll still remember after another fifty-odd books have passed through my hands. This year, I’ve chosen eleven, as follows:
Nicole Lundrigan conveys the hatreds, will to vengeance, and oppression that mark Tito’s postwar Yugoslavia in The Widow Tree, told through the eyes of three teenagers. Her tense, moving narrative shows that for war’s survivors, trust is the first casualty.
The Infidel Stain follows the two amateur detectives M. J. Carter introduced in Strangler Vine, this time in 1840s England, as they unravel the mysteries behind murders committed in a politically charged atmosphere. Carter’s prose and characterizations are first-rate, and she re-creates the upheaval of the Hungry Forties with breathtaking vividness.
Paris Spring, James Naughtie’s excellent thriller about the Paris student uprising of 1968, echoes John Le Carré in its elegant plot with few moving parts, focus on motive, and characters who believe in what they’re doing. It may resolve too neatly, but Naughtie knows his ground, especially the brethren of spydom.
Eleanor Catton tells a Victorian-style epic mystery in The Luminaries, about gold-rush greed, deception, and loyalty in 1860s New Zealand. Where many authors struggle to intersect two disparate lives without resorting to contrivance, Catton seamlessly weaves more than a dozen threads. Skip the astrological charts she includes and dive in.
In The Fifth Servant, Kenneth Wishnia renders a remarkably imaginative mystery, set in sixteenth-century Prague. The Christian community claims that a girl has been murdered so that the Jews can use her blood to make Passover matzo–the old blood-libel myth–and a rabbinical student attempts to solve the case by using his knowledge of the Talmud.
With Mrs. Osmond, John Banville pens the unthinkable, a sequel to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, down to the loop-the-loop sentences that invariably arrive at truth and the intense feelings rendered in a gesture, a glance. But it’s far more than imitation James, which you need not have read to appreciate this novel; Banville underlines the heroine’s masochism, which, he argues, amounts to vanity, an unusual, striking perception.
There are grittier mysteries out there than The Inheritance, but Charles Finch’s warm-blooded Victorian detective, Lenox, is an exceptionally clever sleuth, and the understanding of human nature and the kindness and generosity that suffuse the writing make this novel stand out. Not only will you be entertained, you’ll learn tidbits of information that Finch likes to throw in–for instance, why the British drive on the left.
It’s not kindness or generosity that mark The Moment Before Drowning, James Brydon’s tale that blends colonial war in 1950s Algeria with a grisly murder in Brittany, but it’s a terrific story, and I guarantee it will grip you and make you think. Brydon juxtaposes the two narratives to ask what purposes the law and its enforcement actually serve. Be warned about the torture scenes, but nothing is gratuitous or sensational.
The Wanderers, Tim Pears’s gorgeous, subtle novel, tells a heart-breaking story about two teenagers’ suffering and longing, set in Devon around 1912. She’s the daughter of the manor; he’s the servant’s son exiled from the estate. Pears leaves questions hanging, which will bother some readers, but his prose and characterizations are flawless, and the tension never lags in this simplest of plots.
Another novel I admire for elegant simplicity is The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader’s superb tale about Sarah, an English girl in 1255 who chooses to be a religious hermit at age seventeen. Why she does so, and how her choice changes many lives, not just her own, makes a remarkably complex story, so beautifully and truthfully rendered that you have to remind yourself it’s a first novel.
Last on my list, but only because I reviewed it most recently, is The Mercy Seat, Elizabeth H. Winthrop’s elegiac tale about Louisiana justice in 1943. Nine voices recount the hours before the scheduled execution of Willie Jones, an African-American teenager convicted of rape, and how the verdict has fractured the town. Winthrop manages to recount this heart-rending, provocative story in brief, staccato chapters that form an eloquently coherent whole, pure sorcery that will haunt you.
Those are my eleven favorites. I’ve enjoyed writing my reviews this year and hope you’ve liked reading them.