Hiding, Sometimes in Plain Sight: A Thread of Grace

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Review: A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2005. 442 pp. $17

It’s September 1943, and Italy has just surrendered to the Allies. Though that brings the war’s end one step closer, it puts in jeopardy thousands of Jews from all over Europe who’ve somehow eluded the executioners and migrated to southern France, where Italian troops have protected them. Since the surrender has destroyed that protection, most of the fugitives attempt to flee, and, for tens of thousands, northwest Italy becomes the next stage of their clandestine existence.

Sant’Andrea, a town in Liguria, scrambles to hide those who seek shelter there, a task that couldn’t be more dangerous. Not only have the Germans invaded Italy, they’ve sent crack troops to hold the line, the Waffen SS, who’ve terrorized much of Europe. Anyone who aids or harbors “rebels,” “terrorists,” or Jews will be executed, and the neighboring area will suffer reprisals.

The Memoriale della Shoah in the Milan train station of Jews deported during the Holocaust (2014 photo courtesy fcarbonara via Wikimedia Commons)

To recount the story further would be pointless and misleading, for it’s simply one “no — and furthermore” after another, a big, sprawling narrative from many perspectives, exploring as many themes. Like Italy, A Thread of Grace is warm, dramatic, good company, passionate, and a bumpy, sometimes uneven, ride, not that I care. Among other issues, Russell sifts through shades of good versus those of evil, demonstrating how telling them apart is always difficult. Her narrative discourses on killing, and whether it’s ever justifiable; what true religious faith demands; how to live, not merely exist, when you must hide; and what courage is.

But above all, Russell’s characters propel this novel. My favorite is Renzo Leoni, former pilot who fought in Ethiopia and lives in liquor because of it. He’s Jewish, yet he hides in plain sight, adopting different personae, testament to his bravery, quick thinking, and ingenuity. Sometimes he’s a German-speaking businessman who chats up the sister of the local Gestapo chief to obtain information. Other times, he’s a tradesman or a priest, whichever guise seems safest at the moment to let him visit resistance contacts. He’s also a cantankerous, exceptionally witty son who has legendary fights with his mother, dialogue that is often howlingly funny. Perhaps Renzo’s greatest gift is his ability to befriend anyone, even a Waffen SS doctor who seeks an exit from the war so he can die in relative peace from TB.

Other notables include Suora Marta, a nun so imperious that a priest of her acquaintance jokes to himself that she outranks the pope. There’s Iacopo, the rabbi for Sant’Andrea, who’s so busy helping everyone else, he neglects his own family. There’s another priest, missing part of his leg from the First World War, who makes sure Jews are welcome and cared for, though he slyly hopes to bring one or two of the ebrei into the Church.

A Thread of Grace is the fourth of Russell’s novels I’ve reviewed, and this one bears her trademark grasp of historical detail. All descriptions show activity, even of a supposedly static landscape, which livens the narrative and makes admirable storytelling:

Wrung out by five minutes’ effort fueled by a diet of poor-quality starch, spring chard, and not much else, Suora Corniglia leans against a terrace wall to muster strength and catch her breath. Beside her, tiny brown lizards dart into crevices between stones. Fig trees bake in the basil-scented warmth above meticulously attended vineyards that crisscross the hillside. The Mediterranean is a stripe of silver between gray-green foothills, and when the wind shifts, the astringency of pine from nearby mountains is replaced by the barest hint of salt and seaweed.

If you’re like me, you may wonder, here and there, whether no Italian Christian ever turned in a Jew. But in her afterword, the author insists her depiction is true to life, having found no instances of any such betrayals in her six years of research. (That may be true of northwest Italy, but elsewhere presents a mixed picture.) Regardless, I appreciate her portrayal of Jewish characters, who seem genuine, down to the refusal to eat a biscuit during Passover, and their outlook on the world, schooled by hard experience. Once or twice, they may break character in small ways, but A Thread of Grace sets the bar very high for Holocaust fiction, both in that regard, and others.

One way in which it does concerns how the author hews closely to reality. The novel encompasses almost two years of war, and if the Italian populace does its best to protect those in hiding, the Germans do their best to find the fugitives, kill them, and take revenge. Murder and torture mark this story, not just kindness and generosity.

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

Painter in the Snake Pit: The Creation of Eve

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Review: The Creation of Eve, by Lynn Cullen
Putnam, 2010. 392 pp. $17

When Sofonisba Anguissola yields to long temptation and has a passionate encounter with an artist colleague, she has much to lose. For one thing, Rome in 1559 is hardly the place for a woman to risk her reputation. For another, as a painter, Sofi has dared sign her canvases “the virgin,” partly out of pride in her dedication to her craft, partly to protect herself as a woman in a male profession. No more. As she says in the first sentence of this remarkable, compelling novel, “In the time it takes to pluck a hen, I have ruined myself.”

Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1556 self-portrait (courtesy Łańcut Castle, Łańcut, Poland, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the United States)

However, as the daughter of a petty aristocrat, Sofi’s not without resources, and her talent has received notice. No less a figure than Michelangelo himself has tutored her—which is how she met Tiberio, her lover, also the maestro’s student—and though she must now hide herself, she’s got a place to go. On the strength of drawings she’s made, Sofi receives an invitation from the court of Felipe II of Spain to teach painting to his new bride, Elisabeth of Valois, and be her lady-in-waiting. In that capacity, Sofi attends the royal wedding at Guadalajara, after which her adventure begins:

For this reason, I suffered to trundle these last two days over stony Castilian roads from Madrid, in a coach jammed with eight chatting perfumed Spanish ladies clutching their shawls and their small-bladdered dogs, with Francesca [her maid and chaperone] cutting her eyes accusingly at the pups each time we hit a bump. After a night four-to-a-bed with these ladies and their female companions at an inn along the way, I can assure you that the lapdog’s ability to draw fleas away from its owner is highly overesteemed.

As the quotation suggests, Cullen has given her protagonist a delightful, alluring voice and superbly re-created time, place, and manners, an atmosphere sustained throughout. You expect the novel to focus on feminist issues, notably the double standard regarding honor and purity, which the narrative handles with skill, in multiple facets and circumstances. As king, Felipe may have his mistresses, but if Elisabeth, who’s only fourteen, so much as smiles at the noblemen who fawn on her, look out. As a foreigner herself and a strong woman, Sofi becomes the queen’s trusted confidante.

Look out, again. Raising a foreigner of comparatively low birth to such a position makes enemies, and those who have been displaced put Sofi on notice. But they’re not the greatest danger. Felipe’s sister Juana, a marvelously insidious character, would like nothing better than to destroy Elisabeth and sees the upstart artist as a pawn in that game. Not only does Dona Juana question Sofi closely about Michelangelo, now under fire for his rumored homosexuality and his “degenerate” fresco in the Sistine Chapel, which the Church is considering painting over (!), the king’s sister makes sure that Spain’s inquisitor-general asks Sofi about these as well. Further, Dona Juana seems to know about Tiberio, from whom Sofi has waited, in vain, for a letter declaring his love and willingness to marry her.

So “no—and furthermore” flourish here. I admire how Cullen weaves art, feminism, palace cabals, politics, and sex, moving confidently among historical figures. She casts Felipe II as a more rounded person than he’s often portrayed, capturing his stiffness while revealing his love for gardening and tenderness as a father. I’m also glad to know about Sofonisba Anguissola, having heard only of Artemisia Gentileschi as a female painter of the time, though the former came first by several decades. I like Cullen’s rendering of the royals, but the real show-stopper is Catherine de Medici, Elisabeth’s mother, whom the Spanish queen visits once in France. You understand immediately why, as a child, Elisabeth preferred her father’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, as a mother figure.

The way Sofi becomes privy to certain secrets sometimes stretches credulity, but not to the point of utter contrivance. The lone historical inaccuracy that sticks out concerns the potato’s presence in the royal gardens, which wouldn’t have happened then (if ever, in that era); but I know that only because I wrote a book about it.

More serious is Cullen’s assertion, in her afterword, that Felipe II is wrongly considered to embody the Inquisition, and that contemporary versions elsewhere (see, for example: Mary Tudor) killed more people. That may or may not show Felipe in a more favorable light. But to suggest that the Spanish Inquisition has an exaggeratedly evil reputation because of contemporary chroniclers relegates a great crime to a body count. Fernando and Isabella’s expulsion of Jews and Moors in 1492 and the persecutions of converts afterward attempted to eradicate cultures that had enriched Spain. I think that outdoes Bloody Mary.

My long-time readers may recall that I reviewed one of Cullen’s more recent novels, The Sisters of Summit Avenue, set in the depression-era Midwest, a narrative about sibling rivalry, populated with excellent characterizations. Her authorial range impresses me; and though that story is closer to home, I actually prefer The Creation of Eve. Read both.

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

Portrait of a Gentleman: The Master

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Review: The Master, by Colm Toíbín
Scribner, 2004. 339 pp. $17

Around the turn of the twentieth century, two famous brothers, Henry and William James, converse in Henry’s seaside home in Rye, East Sussex. William, philosopher, psychologist, and lecturer (in public life and private), says, “Harry, I find I have to read innumerable sentences you now write twice over to see what they could possibly mean. In this crowded and hurried reading age you will remain unread and neglected as long as you continue to indulge in this style and these subjects.”

Even — especially — as an admirer of Henry James, I have to laugh. I used to share William’s criticism of his brother’s prose, as probably many readers do today. But in this biographical novel of an author perhaps more closely attuned to social nuance and unspoken truth than any other of English expression, James’s world opens up with impressive clarity, poignancy, and depth. You see how the master thinks, observes, derives his fictions, absorbs tragedy and setbacks and — always tentatively — ventures beyond himself, almost invariably to retreat.

The great writer as a boy alongside his father, Henry, Sr., whose influence loomed large. From an 1854 daguerrotype by Mathew Brady (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Consequently, The Master delivers the story of how a writer’s mind works, the stuff that anyone who writes will recognize — the bits of life that beg to be set down, impatience for tiresome guests to depart so that you can get to work, the pains of failure, the glories when a reader picks up your work for the first time and tells you how much she likes it. (Notice how long my sentences are getting; be it known that Toíbín’s aren’t, for he hasn’t tried to write James, only about him.) But there’s much more, for Toíbín focuses on how a man who observes so keenly often remains an observer, and why. James’s fear of emotional entrapment conveys a figure who feels constantly under siege, though he might not say so. He worries that the world he knows is fast disappearing.

There’s little plot in The Master, yet there’s much activity, all laden with meaning. As the novel begins in 1895, Henry tries to circumvent his anxieties about the first performance of his play in London by attending a nearby theater showing Oscar Wilde’s comic drama, An Ideal Husband. James, who could be a prig, finds Wilde’s work completely vulgar and resents his success, more so after his own play fails miserably. But months later, when Wilde sues his lover’s father for slander over accusations of homosexuality, James takes a renewed interest in Wilde. It’s not schadenfreude but the first intimation that James has homosexual attractions and desires he’s never acted on.

Throughout, Toíbín handles that theme with the delicacy befitting his protagonist. How sad that this man, whose instincts are kindly and sensitive, who has many friends who clamor for his company, who understands children and easily befriends them, suppresses the longing that might have made him happier. Granted, no one’s more keenly aware of societal disapproval and pressure than Henry James, yet you sense that tact and discretion might have permitted more leeway than he allows himself.

But Toíbín also reveals Henry’s less attractive facets, such as his selfish refusal to help a couple dear friends in dire need. Or, earlier in his life, how his parents somehow decide the Civil War has nothing to do with him—startling, considering that the Jameses are staunch New England abolitionists, as are their friends. Two of Henry’s brothers enlist and serve as officers in a famous Black regiment; one is grievously wounded.

Those failures point to how his parents have arranged Henry’s life for him (and William’s, to some extent), though it’s Henry who never escapes that confinement. As he muses over the body of his only, beloved sister, who’s just died, he realizes what a circumscribed life they have both led:

Her face changed as the light changed. She seemed young and old, exhausted and quite utterly beautiful. . . . He and his sister would die childless; what they owned was theirs only while they lived. There would be no direct heirs. They had both recoiled from engagements, deep companionship, the warmth of love. They had never wanted it. He felt they had both been banished, sent into exile, left alone, while their siblings had married and their parents had followed one another into death. Sadly and tenderly, he touched her cold, composed hands.

The Master may not be for everybody. But you don’t have to be a fan of Henry James to appreciate its breadth and poignancy.

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

War, Destroyer of Souls: Three Day Road

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Review: Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden
Penguin, 2005. 368 pp. $17

Toward the end of this harrowing novel about the First World War, a soldier narrator remarks, “We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy.”

So says Xavier Bird, thinking of his boyhood friend and brother in arms, Elijah Whiskeyjack. Neither name actually belongs to them, for they are Cree, a Native people of Canada, and white people have bestowed those handles on them. Likewise, the prejudice the two friends face in the ranks of the Southern Ontario Rifles runs deep, embodied in their insecure, less-than-capable immediate superior, Lieutenant Breech, who views them as alien to begin with, though with gradations that fit his convenience.

Photo of a nighttime German barrage on Allied lines, believed to be Canadian troops at Ypres, 1915 (courtesy On the Fringe of the Great Fight by Colonel George G. Nasmith, C.M.G. Mcclelland, Goodchild & Stewart Toronto 1917, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in the United States)

Or separate them, rather, to Elijah’s frequent gratification and Xavier’s constant pain. Xavier grew up in the backwoods, but after his mother’s death when he was very young, attended a repressive religious school until his aunt, Niska, rescued him. Elijah, whom he met there, came to live with them later, and Xavier taught him all the backwoods skills he has. They became skilled hunters, and at the front, they conduct the ultimate hunt — or Elijah does, anyway. Hence Xavier’s remark about reckoning with what one does to the enemy.

But that’s not where Three Day Road starts, for better or worse. The novel begins with Xavier, one leg amputated and addicted to morphine, coming home to a heart-stricken Niska. She believes he’s returned intending to die; and since she doesn’t know what he saw or did in France, she’s unsure what will help him.

I admire Niska’s resolve, dedication, and passionate attachment to her threatened way of life and her sister’s only child. Much of her narrative has to do with hardship and sacrifice, with rare pleasure cut short by betrayal. In that way, her existence parallels the soldiers’, a touch I like. The blind hatred she endures whenever she ventures into or near town etches a sharp criticism of the white men who presume superiority to her.

However, she recounts many scenes while Xavier is asleep, under the influence of morphine, or just plain silent. Such interior monologues feel like set pieces shoved into the story for the information they contain. I imagine that Boyden might have wrestled with where to put these scenes, because nearly all take place well before the war and would have hampered the main narrative had they appeared chronologically. Caught between that constraint, Xavier’s understandable reluctance to speak about the unspeakable, and his nearly constant self-medication, the author does his best with Niska’s memories. They just don’t always fit seamlessly.

But Boyden superbly re-creates the First World War, in the trenches and behind the lines, some of the most impressive descriptions of that subject I’ve ever read. Nothing purple, just plain, straight, and spot on:

Once the shelling has gone quiet, we make our way out and survey the damage. I’m surprised to see that very little looks different than it did before. There is the same mud and puddles and torn-up wagons and piles of bricks. The only real difference is the bitter smell of cordite and the sweeter smell of blood that is as rich in the air as if we’d just butchered a large moose.

I also like how Boyden has the two friends’ paths diverge, and what he does with that. Xavier’s the better marksman and tracker, though Elijah’s no slouch, and they’re both assigned to sniper duty. But Elijah speaks better English, knows how to joke, and to put himself forward, so he gets the glory. Using the Cree language, unique to them, he protects Xavier in public from Lieutenant Breech’s ornery mindlessness when he can, because he understands the white man’s insecurity. But he doesn’t share the credit for the sniper exploits, and that burns Xavier more than he’s willing to admit.

The weak link in the novel is the lieutenant, a clichéd depiction and historical anomaly. Junior officers were taught to show courage under fire to the point of recklessness and suffered higher casualty rates, on average, than enlisted men. But Breech almost never faces German bullets, a fault that his superiors would have noticed, and he’s got enough flaws as it is. Had Boyden allowed him personal bravery, the lieutenant would have seemed truer. Likewise, the two noncommissioned officers Elijah and Xavier know come across as types, the salt-of-the-earth core of any army, though each has skills that make them interesting.

Finally, since the narrative revolves around what’s essentially a squad, lack of other officers makes it seem as if Breech commands an entire company, not a platoon. Again, I understand the desire for economy, but I get a skewed, conflated picture of their battles, as the lens expands to set the stage for famous engagements, only to telescope to almost nothing.

Nevertheless, Three Day Road not only provides a glimpse of the Native contribution to Canada’s war, a subject I’ve never read about before, as a trench novel, it’s terrific.

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

Blame the Woman: No Small Shame

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Review: No Small Shame, by Christine Bell
Impact, 2020. 396 pp. AU $33

When fifteen-year-old Mary O’Donnell emigrates from Scotland to Australia in 1914, besides the promise of a more prosperous life, she’s hoping to taste a thin wedge of freedom, like a good pie — and to be reunited with her childhood crush, Liam Merrilees. But there’s precious little money waiting in this sparse landscape for Mary or her family, Further, Liam has lost the fire in his eyes, though not his self-involvement. When he’s not being outright brutal toward Mary, he shows absolutely no interest in her, but she’s the only one who can’t see it. She’s used to being kicked. Mary’s mother has bruised her all her life, and not just emotionally; daughter accepts this as her lot.

From this premise, you can predict where the narrative will go most of the time. You know that Mary won’t give up on Liam, that mother will never stop ripping into her, and that vile prophecies will bear fruit, evoking more than one trope. Yet the novel works, more or less, because Mary struggles to slip between the Catholic hellfire her mother has taught her to fear and the life she’s dreamed of leading. Her awakening from masochism won’t happen overnight, nor will the world spin any differently for it, but Mary’s interior journey is far less ordained than her exterior one.

The background fits too. First World War Australia, though distant from both Gallipoli and the Western Front, where its volunteers have gone, has its own battlegrounds, starting with that word volunteer. The country has no conscription, but the number of white feathers handed out to able-bodied men not in uniform, based on the grotesque assumption that real men never shirk a fight, takes a heavy emotional toll, on Liam as on others. The lengthy casualty lists don’t seem to make a dent, either; if some men have been slaughtered, it’s up to the rest to avenge them, even if nobody really knows concretely what the war’s about. Throw in wartime price inflation, the wages that haven’t kept pace, and strife between Catholic and Protestant, you’ve got quite a vortex of problems. Incidentally, Mary’s mother relishes the religious conflict, in her perverse way. She’s a piece of work.

I like this aspect of No Small Shame, the everyday burdens that twist life in ways that no one could have imagined when the trumpets sounded. Not least are the burdens that women bear, silently and without question, for it’s their job to make sure their men are happy and feel supported, no matter what sacrifice that entails. And you guessed it: Mary takes the brunt, though she’s not alone.

Bell’s prose is simple yet effective, as with Mary’s first glimpse of her new home:

Where were the fabulous fields and plump livestock waiting for lads and farmers promised by the immigration agent in Motherwell offering assisted passages to sunny Australia? All Mary could see extending beyond the train windows was blade after blade of grass bleached colourless as sand in a desert. The poor animals in the endless paddocks were without a leaf of shade or drip of water. She couldn’t guess how any of them survived.

Less convincing, I find, are the characterizations. Maw, her mother, is well drawn. As for Mary, it’s not easy to portray a slow transformation to selfhood, and Bell succeeds, mostly, barring shaky instances that don’t quite make sense to me. Liam, though predictable, has edges. He’s never learned to move past self-pity or reckon with who he is, and though he wants to do better, he can’t. Unfortunately, the reader knows what Mary doesn’t, that he’ll never change. I wish Bell hadn’t tried to redeem him, which I don’t believe, and which I think actually demeans his stature, renders him less tragic.

The children in these pages are idealized, not like any I’ve ever met. Ditto Tom, a Protestant friend of Mary’s who holds a candle for her, which she’s remarkably slow to recognize. He’s a nice guy and treats her kindly, but he’s cardboard, and since he’s crucial to the story, his opacity hurts the narrative. As a man with a medical condition that prevents him from enlisting, he embodies the shame men feel, just as Mary represents women that way. That’s not enough.

Nevertheless, despite these objections, I should point out how unusual No Small Shame is among First World War novels with a female protagonist, a narrow field to begin with. Mary’s neither nurse nor bandage roller nor factory worker nor her country’s soul, keeping the home fires burning. I like that. For that reason, you may find this novel worth reading.

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

Shelf Death: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne

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Review: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart
Minotaur, 2020. 341 pp. $27

Lady Cecily Kay doesn’t quite understand why her husband, consul in Smyrna for His Majesty James II, has dispatched her back to England, where she can cause no further trouble. After all, if Cecily didn’t point out the oddities in her husband’s financial ledgers, who would? And why wouldn’t he want the benefit of her sharp eyes?

But despite her humiliating departure from the conjugal nest, Lady Kay’s about to have more adventure than she ever could in Smyrna, and in much the same fashion, asking questions that men don’t wish to answer. (Since it’s 1699, London men expect women to listen like donkeys waiting to have their hind legs talked off, but the devil with that.) So when Cecily tours the famous, coveted collection of Sir Barnaby Mayne, a cornucopia of the natural and folkloric worlds, and someone knifes the collector to death, it’s incumbent on Lady Kay to act. Not only do curiosity and scientific rigor demand no less; justice must be served.

My favorite collector, Joseph Banks, as painted by Joshua Reynolds, 1773. President of the Royal Society for more than forty years, Banks established Kew Gardens as the leading botanical collection in the world (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Dinley, Sir Barnaby’s assistant, has confessed to the killing and run away. But anyone with an open mind who’s met him for five minutes would believe he’s innocent. If ever there were a naturalist who cringed and blushed over the red-in-tooth-and-claw aspects of his passion, it would be Dinley—and besides, what motive could he have had? However, since Sir Barnaby was a gentleman of title and property, as are most of the visitors on the tour that day, whereas Dinley’s a nobody, a confession and flight are enough evidence to hang him.

Nobody takes kindly to Lady Kay’s inquiries as to the time of the murder, who was where in the house then, and what may be deduced from such observations. As we’ve seen, though, subtlety’s not her strong point. She does have one ally, however, a childhood friend from a lower social class, who’s temporarily residing in the Mayne manse, working as an illustrator for the collector’s intended catalog. But it takes a while for Cecily to trust Meacan, who, like Cecily, is less than forthcoming—a nice touch, there—and the two never do quite get over their competition to solve the mystery, another nice touch.

They also have different approaches, since Meacan, who’s gone through two husbands, isn’t above using flirtation to surmount an obstacle. I like that too, especially because Hart shows a light hand, not playing that too far. Unfortunately for the two sleuths, however, by the time they decide to let their hair down and join forces, Lady Mayne, the imperious, estranged widow, shows up. The investigation promptly hits a wall, namely, the prohibition to meddle in the constabulary’s business.

Hart constructs her mystery with consummate skill and, as you’ve probably guessed by now, deployed “no—and furthermore” to great advantage. There are many suspects, each with plausible secrets to protect, and the narrative openly reveals all the facts. But unless you’re a better detective than I, you won’t guess the killer’s identity or much else, which keeps the pages turning and offers a satisfying conclusion.

Along the way, Hart casts a keen eye on everything from late-seventeenth-century foppishness to attitudes toward the occult to collecting as blood sport to foodways — imagine, to eat any vegetable raw, especially a radish! Consider this description of Sir Barnaby himself:

Though age had made him frail, thinning his cheeks to translucence and carving furrows around his eyes, the authority projected over the space around him was unambiguous. His shoulders, encased in black velvet, appeared broader than they were, as if they were approaching breadth and volume from the darkness surrounding them. He wore a gray wig that rose high above his brow and fell in luxurious curls down his chest, framing the pristine lace that cascaded from his collar.

Another delight in these pages is the humor. For example, Hart offers us a would-be collector with more money than brains, a sycophant whom everyone quickly learns to avoid. Lady Mayne is a hoot, stiffer alive than her late husband dead, convinced, with barely repressed shudders, that collecting is a godless obsession. But my favorite is a Russian general, whose verbal duels with Lady Kay are hilarious, further evidence in her eyes of what blockheads men can be.

If I have one reservation about this novel, it’s the climactic scene, which invokes more than a couple tropes. But maybe it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, which would fit. The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is a delight.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

She Beats the Boys at Their Own Game: Spitfire

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Review: Spitfire, by M. L. Huie
Crooked Lane, 2020. 320 pp. $27

June 1946 marks about a year since Olivia Nash’s war ended, but peace hasn’t reached her yet, and may never. Living in a vodka bottle, behind on her rent for her London flat, Livy’s stuck in a proofreading job at a third-rate newspaper, which she’s unlikely to keep much longer. Wartime memories plague her like the Furies, but she can’t even tell anyone or share her stories, for what she did was very hush-hush: She parachuted into France as a secret agent and fought with the Resistance. The Germans nicknamed her Spitfire.

Most people would find proofreading dull after those exploits, but for Livy, it’s killing her. She’s furious and bereft, and nothing can assuage the pain. However, just when she’s at her lowest, a man with an aristocratic bearing and an air of the skirt-chaser tracks her down, offering a job in “journalism.” Livy suspects it’s an elaborate ploy of seduction, but she has nothing left to lose, so she goes to the address on the man’s business card. And when her would-be employer, Ian Fleming, pushes the Official Secrets Act form across his desk, Livy signs. She won’t be writing or reporting; she’ll be spying.

Old Admiralty Building, London, where Ian Fleming worked for Naval Intelligence during World War II, as it appeared in 2010 (courtesy Tim Gage, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons)

Regrets follow. Fleming tells her that the Frenchman who betrayed her and their group leader, whom she loved, belongs to a network very much alive and kicking. The British want the names of agents in the network, as do the Soviets and Americans, and her assignment is to go to Paris and obtain the list. Livy wants nothing to do with the traitor, let alone aid his prospects for employment by His Majesty’s Secret Service. But she accepts the job all the same (otherwise, there wouldn’t be a novel), whereupon Fleming sends her to charm school for two weeks, to file down her sass and her Lancashire manners and accent.

Those scenes are a lot of fun. Rest assured that our heroine will learn how to drink tea properly and mingle with diplomats, but plenty of sass remains. In Paris, she meets an American agent to whom she’s attracted, but that’s a trap, so she turns down his repeated offers to work together. When he complains that they both want the same thing, so why not? Livy retorts, “Really now, me mum raised me right.”

Another pleasure of Spitfire is the story. “No — and furthermore” blooms on almost every page, it seems, and bears lasting fruit. Double-crosses (or, shall we say, shifting alliances) continually force Livy to scramble, and, as a result, she gets in and causes plenty of trouble. She makes mistakes, sometimes bad ones, but her gifts for tradecraft and her extraordinary courage carry her through. The boys may think she’s just a pretty nonentity, but a few of them wind up on their fat behinds, sometimes literally.

Huie spends little ink on scenery, just enough to give a flavor of postwar London and Paris. Sometimes I wanted specific rather than generic descriptions, but dialogue and action do the work, and Livy’s voice is irresistible:

Livy assumed [the door lock] would be of a certain quality — perhaps tougher to spring than one in an average flat. Still, burglary had been on the curriculum at the SOE camp, and she’d picked more than a few locks in her day, though never while wearing a tight satin dress in a hallway in one of the best hotels in the world — but there had to be a first time for everything.

I don’t understand why Livy likes the American agent; then again, she’s shown poor judgment in her life about men. I’m also not convinced by a particular, crucial double-cross, despite the amount of space that the narrative gives to explain it. On a pickier note, I can’t stand the word impact as a verb — it’s business-speak — and I doubt very much whether Englishmen and -women of 1946 would have used it. But pickiness aside, I enjoyed Spitfire, and I think many readers would too.

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

Saving the Queen from Herself: Lamentation

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Review: Lamentation, by C. J. Sansom
Mulholland/Little, Brown, 2015. 656 pp. $19

In summer 1546, Henry VIII’s much-abused, overindulged body begins to fail, and the London court vultures jostle for a perch from which to become regent for the next king, the boy Prince Edward. Religious conflict will likely determine who triumphs in this struggle, and those deemed heretics pay with their lives, often at the stake. In this combustible atmosphere, Queen Catherine, who’d like to be regent for her stepson, has made a potentially fatal blunder. In secret, without telling Henry, she has written a religious confession, Lamentation of a Sinner, which wouldn’t pass theological muster, and which has been stolen.

Very likely, the thief acted on behalf of a powerful lord who desires her downfall, and there are many of those. Pick your preferred form of treason: disloyalty to the throne, or heresy? Either crime could send Catherine to the block, just like two of her predecessors, whose jewels and clothes she wears. And despite Henry’s ill health, his mind’s still sharp, as are his executioners’ axes.

Queen Catherine Parr (1512-1548), copy of a contemporary portrait after Master John, painted sometime between 1600 and 1770 (courtesy UK National Trust, at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland, on loan from Lord Hastings; via Wikimedia Commons)

Through her uncle, Lord Parr, she summons Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer who has helped her before with his superior skills at detection and reasoning. A commoner, a hunchback, and more of a free-thinker than he reveals to any but his intimates, Matthew must exercise the greatest caution around ruthless, ambitious courtiers jealous of their prerogatives, who despise him for his looks, birth, and possible heresy.

Accusations of heresy have become an effective, if two-edged, political weapon, often based on such concepts as whether Christ’s blood and flesh appear in fact at communion or symbolically. Given the loose, abstract nature of the argument, any utterance may be (mis)construed according to the hearer’s wishes or prejudices, one way to dispose of an enemy. Further complicating Matthew’s investigation, printers known for or suspected of heretical thinking have been murdered. Did they have the queen’s manuscript? And if so, do the killers possess it now? Do they mean to publish it and destroy the queen that way, or do they have other plans?

Sansom skillfully intertwines these mysteries with the politics of the day. It takes getting used to the notion that anyone would persecute anyone else over such fine distinctions of ritual and believe themselves righteous in doing so. But before long, you understand the mindset that makes this possible, because the social attitudes in this book feel internal to the characters, not merely slipped into their mouths.

To back off this extraordinary novel a second, I’m irritated when I tell people I write historical fiction, and all they focus on is the research I must have to do, as if that were the hard, original part. What about the supreme difficulties of crafting a credible, compelling narrative, in words nobody else has used in exactly that way, and which must pull the reader in on every page? So when I hear such remarks, I’m tempted to reply that anyone can go to the library.

Well, Sansom is the library. He knows every building in sixteenth-century London: which ones stood next to it, what it looked like, who built it, with what materials, who owned it, and how they came by it. That’s just for starters; you see the lords strut, the hangers-on fawn, the supplicants grovel for a sinecure with the great. Among the common folk, you see beggars, lawyers, peddlers, merchants, artisans — you name it. Consider this paragraph describing Matthew’s visit to part of the palace at Whitehall:

He led me to a group of half a dozen richly dressed ladies playing cards at a table in a large window-bay, and we bowed to them. All were expensively made-up, their faces white with ceruse, red spots on their cheeks. All wore silken farthingales, the fronts open to show the brightly embroidered foreparts and huge detachable sleeves, richly embroidered in contrasting colors. . . . A spaniel wandered around, hoping for scraps. . . .

Such knowledge of detail, almost always wielded with impressive dexterity, conveys a dazzlingly rich portrait of Tudor London. To be sure, Sansom occasionally resorts to information dumps, and he sometimes repeats phrases or facts. But in a narrative as long as this one, with as many instances of “no — and furthermore” as I can count, all revolving around Byzantine power struggles, a reminder of who’s in whose camp doing what can be helpful. And talk about pulling the reader in on every page; Lamentation is a mesmerizing story.

The characters appeal to me less. Matthew, aside from his penchant for setting the record straight, which invariably costs his friends, has no great flaw that I can see. Most characters, though rendered in physical vividness, seem ruled by a single trait, or at most, two. But the excellent storytelling and the never-flagging sense of the physical involve you, and you’ll keep guessing the outcome until the end.

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

Dislocated Souls: Exile Music

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Review: Exile Music, by Jennifer Steil
Viking, 2020. 432 pp. $27

As the 1930s progress, Orly Zingel’s family watches the Austria of their birth turn into an unrecognizable monster, hostile to Jews like them. As a ten-year-old, Orly can’t readily understand how people she’s known all her life, who’ve smiled at her and been friendly, can turn away, call her hateful names, or threaten to have her arrested. Her parents, accomplished professional musicians, are banned from performing.

Anneliese, her closest — only — friend, who lives in the same Vienna apartment building, swears that she’ll stick by Orly, always. That’s a given, for the two are like sisters, absorbed in and devoted to one another. But Anneliese’s parents, who’ve always treated Orly as a favorite niece or even a daughter, now call her filth.

Booted out of the building they own, the Zingels are pushed into a ghetto, and they try to leave Austria. Orly’s older brother, Willi, flees Vienna, hoping to reach Switzerland, and the rest of the family lives in uncertainty about his fate. Her father attempts to obtain exit visas, but the only open doors lead to Shanghai, Dominican Republic, or Bolivia. Father joins the long line snaking from the Bolivian consulate and struggles not to lose hope, especially when the SS sends its thugs to beat and intimidate the would-be emigrants. That’s yet another brutality that Orly can’t understand; if the government wants Jews to leave the country, why put so many obstacles in the way?

La Paz, Bolivia, in winter 2008, with Mt. Illimani in the background (courtesy Mark Goble, via Wikimedia Commons)

From the title and cover illustration, you’ll know that the Zingels eventually reach Bolivia; they settle in La Paz. But in this patient, discursive narrative, there’s plenty of “no — and furthermore” to go around. If you’re wondering how these sophisticated refugees will cope with life in the Andes, their humiliation, emotional losses, and dislocation, Exile Music has plenty to offer.

But besides the expected themes of trauma, culture shock, loss, and chances for regrowth, which the author does a beautiful job exploring in a well-delineated context, she delves into much else. You’ll get such issues as what religion and identity mean; what constitutes “home”; how music and poetry, purveyors of metaphor, may offer hope through connection; and whether revenge and justice coincide.

That’s a lot to put in one novel, but everything belongs. Where the story pushes briefly into the spirit realm, I get impatient, because I don’t believe in that. But Steil ties that theme to Orly’s identity — this is a coming-of-age novel, after all — so it makes sense, and what the author includes about local customs provides a fascinating window on a culture I’ve never read about before.

Throughout, the narrative grounds itself in physical detail, so, for example, you see Austrian anti-Semitism and nationalist fervor merge with ever-increasing strength before your eyes. Orly’s experience, though specific and individual, conveys a general atmosphere with terrifying power. The occasional crowd scene packs a wallop too, as with Kristallnacht or here, the Anschluss, the day German troops took over Austria in March 1938:

A tram swept by, its roof displaying a massive swastika. Across the street I could see a curly-haired girl who used to be in my class; my former math teacher; the waiter from the coffeehaus at the end of the block, their arms all flying upward. They threw flowers at the soldiers, blew kisses as they marched past, cheering the death of our country.

Since by this time, Orly is not allowed to attend school or go to a coffeehaus, you implicitly understand her horror, fear, and deep-seated loneliness.

Steil also portrays the friendship between Orly and Anneliese with tenderness and even passion; it’s more than a little erotic. The girls create, and tell each other stories about, a mythic kingdom where predators have no place and enemies can gain no entry. It’s a lovely touch, and their fantasy won’t change life in the street, but it does give them hope.

Orly’s parents need to come through more clearly; too often, they seem more like attitudes and behaviors than fully fledged characters. But overall, I highly recommend Exile Music, which conveys both the Jewish and émigré experience with a sure hand — and worlds else besides.

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

Our Natures, and That of Love: To Calais, in Ordinary Time

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Review: To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek
Canongate, 2019. 400 pp. $27

The summer of 1348, the quiet Cotswold village of Outen Green simmers with unexpected happenings. Lady Bernadine (Berna) Corbet, daughter of the manor, is due to wed a much older man she detests, while the groom’s own daughter will wed Sir Guy Corbet, Berna’s father. A loathsome arrangement, to be sure, but Sir Guy’s word is law. Berna hoped that her preferred suitor, Laurence Haket, would spirit her away — according to the chivalric Romance of the Rose, which she adores, he should have — but Laurence seems to love his dignity more than he does Berna.

Will Quate, a plowman and archer bonded to Sir Guy, has been recruited to join a troop of bowmen raised by Laurence to accompany him to Calais, where Laurence has a fiefdom. Will’s betrothed pleads with Will to stay and doesn’t understand why he refuses. She assumes that it’s because she had a stillborn child by another man, but that’s not why. Sir Guy has promised to release Will from his bond if he serves one year, and Will, no fool, has dared demand that promise in writing, even though he can’t read.

Unlettered though he is, however, he can imagine what freedom means, and not just in the sense that leaving Sir Guy’s lands without permission is a hanging offense. An unusual, fascinating character in historical fiction of the medieval era, Will dares hope for an as-yet undefined future, what his neighbors would never dream of—though when he hears the word possibility, he has to ask what it means, which is telling.

You sense that Will and Berna will drive parallel narratives, and that the nature of love will be a significant theme. As one wise character says, “Love is whatever remains once one has made an accommodation with fate.” Since the description of the plague rumored to have afflicted France (what the characters call “the qualm”) recalls the Black Death, which also fits the timing, you can guess that how people behave during a pandemic will matter here too. The novel, published last year, isn’t prescient, though it may seem so; rather, it’s that pandemics share certain qualities. But the similarities are striking and instructive, nonetheless.

The Battle of Calais, 1350, as it appeared in Jean Froissart’s chronicles, 1410 (courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons)

With that as background, Meek’s folk hash out good and evil; the nature of gender; sin and redemption; the fear of, and violence toward, women; desire and obstacles to satisfaction; what knowledge and truth mean. Throw in sidelines like anti-Semitism and whether the English archers who destroyed the French nobility at the Battle of Crécy betrayed the social order, and you begin to see how rich and complex this novel is.

I love Meek’s characters; major or minor, they come through in full. One favorite is Thomas, a scholar who joins the expedition to Calais nominally as a churchman, though he has no power to perform the sacraments, which becomes an issue. But he serves admirably as a mediator amid the constant squabbles and moral dilemmas that arise, and he unsettles his companions — especially the archers, a rough lot — by defining and clarifying issues rather than offering solutions or justifying the behavior he’s been asked to judge. He’s a moral relativist, in other words, frightening to fourteenth-century minds. A later generation might think of him also as a therapist.

Except for the educated characters’ narration, Meek tells his story in archaic English, which he apparently culled from the OED, and which appears in unfamiliar rhythms. That takes getting used to, until the usages begin to make sense: for example, neb for nose, steven for voice, lolled for hanged. Consequently, Meek creates a language barrier between high-born and low, part of his exploration of social class. But it’s also beautiful prose poetry:

The priest said man’s lot wasn’t to choose his dreams, nor win of them, and dreams fell upon us, like wild deer in darkness, while we slept. Yet there were some folk who warded their dreams, as shepherds warded sheep, and kept them as easy by day as by night, and won of them, as of their herd shepherds won wool. These folk, he said were called writers, and they were close to the Fiend.

The cheeky humor typifies To Calais, which has its uproarious, bawdy moments. But if you’re thinking Chaucer, as I did at first, this narrative only partly resembles “The Miller’s Tale.” A great deal of casual violence occurs, and the circumstances of a gang-rape, which happened in the past, figure heavily in the narrative.

At times, I find Thomas the scholar’s moral reasoning too modern, satisfying though it is. There’s also a deathbed epiphany that strikes me as implausible. But To Calais, in Ordinary Time offers so many pleasures that flaws like these don’t get in the way. I highly recommend this novel.

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