Lock Her Up!: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanity Sinks Low: The Winter Station


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Warm-Blooded Detective: The Inheritance


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affair of Honor: The Lost Season of Love and Snow


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrendering to Fear: Munich


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less Talk, More Mystery: The Widows of Malabar Hill


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twelve Angry Men: The Luminaries


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Lie: The Fifth Servant


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Review: The Fifth Servant, by Kenneth Wishnia
Morrow, 2010. 387 pp. $26

On Good Friday, a young girl in Prague is found murdered, her throat cut. Since the year is 1592, suspicion automatically falls on the Jews, and since that evening also marks the start of Passover, why, that settles it. Whoever killed her must have used her blood to bake matzoh. Never mind that by Jewish law, blood is ritually impure, literally untouchable, or that matzoh must be made of flour and water. The infamous blood libel has had a long, sturdy life, and in late sixteenth-century Prague, just about every Christian believes in it implicitly.

In taking this ancient lie as its premise, The Fifth Servant pushes its characters (and the reader) to look closely at bigotry and hatred while also inviting laughter. To explain that, I could say that oppressed people need humor to survive, and that Jewish humor, especially of the ghetto or shtetl variety, is well known. But that’s only half the story. This remarkable novel promises a wild ride even in the front matter, which compares the word shamus, or private detective, with its Yiddish ancestor, shammes, or sexton of a synagogue.

Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a Talmudic scholar newly arrived from Poland, is the shammes in question, the fifth of his calling in a ghetto with four synagogues. This makes him literally a fifth wheel, and he’s easily the squeakiest in town. Benyamin has three days to solve the crime, or the ghetto will pay, probably with its destruction. This doesn’t exactly come as a shock to him.

Holy Week and Eastertide were especially risky, and a gambling man would say that we were long overdue for some old-fashioned Jew-hatred. Every year the Jews got thrown out of somewhere. The lucky ones merely got beaten up, had their property stolen, and escaped with their books and the clothes they happened to be wearing at the time. But one Easter a while back, a mob of enraged Christians had practically burned down the entire Jewish Town, leaving only the black and stone shul and a few crummy houses that refused to fall over. Three thousand people murdered in one weekend, all because some idiot said that a Jewish boy had thrown a handful of mud at a passing priest.

Still, how can Benyamin do anything when Friday evening is not only the first Passover seder but the Sabbath, and he may undertake no labor? Moreover, since the crime took place outside the ghetto, and the authorities have closed the gates to Jewish traffic, how can he possibly gather clues or question witnesses? Finally, how can Benyamin carry out his investigation when several rabbinical authorities oppose him and his rationalist methods? It’s that heretical way of thinking, they believe, that caused the trouble in the first place. If everyone were properly devout, they argue, there’d be no blood libel.

Rabbi Judah Loew’s tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague (courtesy MKPiekarska, via Wikimedia Commons)

But Benyamin has one respected ally, Rabbi Judah Loew, a rationalist himself (and a historical figure, incidentally). Between the two of them, using Talmudic logic and wisdom from the Torah and other texts, they try, little by little, to crack the mystery surrounding the girl’s murder. But the odds are heavily against them, and you won’t be surprised to hear that “no; and furthermore” greets them at every turn — excuse me, neyn; un noch, since Yiddish is the key language, here.

Along the way, Wishnia re-creates sixteenth-century Prague, Jewish life of that era, and a world of intellectual ferment alongside brute superstition. I’ve never read a mystery in which the sleuths are Talmudic scholars, quoting references from sacred writings to support the inferences they draw from observed facts. (For that matter, even the ghetto’s whores are learned enough to enter the debate.) That can be very funny, especially when they have to explain themselves to Christians, who believe that drawing inferences from anything must be an example of Jewish witchcraft. Such humor carries a dangerous edge, of course. But even among his fellow Jews, Benyamin has to overcome suspicion of his origins, scholastic pedigree, and ways of reasoning. For instance, when one skeptic asks, “How come I haven’t heard of you?,” he replies, “Because the angels who sing my praises do it beyond the range of normal hearing.”

At times, Benyamin’s commentary wears thin; a little less archness would have worked a lot better. And the reader unfamiliar with Hebrew or Yiddish may feel at sea, though the text explains the many quotations and expressions. (There’s also a glossary at the back.) But such is the draw of The Fifth Servant that it pulls you into its world and doesn’t let go – for laughs and heartache, both.

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

The Vanity of Masochism: Mrs. Osmond


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Review: Mrs. Osmond, by John Banville
Knopf, 2017. 369 pp. $27

Isabel Osmond (née Archer) has disobeyed her husband, Gilbert, something she’s never done before. Against his will, she’s left their home in Rome to visit her dying cousin in England. After the funeral, friends urge Isabel not to return to Gilbert — a remarkable notion for the 1880s – whose cruelty and deceit have ruined any hope of happiness.

Readers of The Portrait of a Lady, the Henry James masterpiece, will recognize the situation and characters. They will also know that Isabel wouldn’t dream of taking flight from her lawfully wedded husband. But Banville has set his imagination to work, and he finds much meat in what an American-born woman of the Victorian Age would do if she discovered that her vicious husband had married her only for her money.

To pen a sequel to Henry James requires a bold, confident hand and a finely perceptive eye. Only a writer as experienced and gifted as Banville would even attempt it, and he succeeds brilliantly. Not only has he captured the Jamesian style, the discursive loop-the-loop sentences that end dead center in observed truth; like the master, Banville derives intense feeling from a gesture or an inflection of voice. As with the original, what’s left between the lines often means more than what is said. Where modern authors interrupt their narratives to reveal their characters’ inner lives (if they bother), for James, there isn’t anything but inner life. For readers who expect a faster-moving story, his approach may be an acquired taste. But he creates tension through deep emotional connection; so too with Banville and Mrs. Osmond.

Letting her eyes close, Isabel dipped into the dark behind her lids as if into the mossy coolness of a forest pool. Yet she could not linger long, for in that darkness she was sure to meet the padding, yellow-eyed, implacable creature that was her conscience. Strange: she it was who had been wronged, grievously wronged, by her husband, and by a woman whom she considered, if not her ally, then not her enemy either, yet it was she herself who felt the shame of the thing.

But to call this novel imitation James hardly does it justice. Where James expounds on the loss of innocence, a favorite theme, especially regarding Americans residing in Europe, Banville emphasizes Isabel’s masochism, so deep and relished that it amounts to vanity. There are stretches in Mrs. Osmond in which I wanted to hit her over the head, because I detest masochism and dislike literary characters who don’t struggle against it the way I’d want them to. But Isabel’s excessive sense of duty is also painful, since Gilbert Osmond must rank among the most odious husbands in literature. He’d never stoop to physical violence or even profanity, never raises his voice, and would consider it gauche and beneath him to be drunk. Yet he pulverizes everyone around him through fifty shades of disdain, many of which require no words.

Consequently, Isabel’s physical journey from London back to Rome takes second place to her inner travels. She believes she must confront Gilbert, a task that requires steeling herself and gathering information, but while she’s doing that, she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants and deserves. Naturally, she goes back and forth, because when you have spent your life as a doormat, even the experience of being cheated and lied to in the worst possible way doesn’t necessarily qualify you to stand up for yourself. Nevertheless, when Gilbert and she finally do meet, it doesn’t go as either of them expects.

I’m not the type to read modern takes on Jane Austen or Conan Doyle, but I made an exception with Mrs. Osmond and am glad I did. We’ve all known someone like Isabel, and it makes no difference that this version of her comes from the nineteenth century. You need not have read The Portrait of a Lady to enjoy it– Banville seems to assume no knowledge of it—but I appreciated the sequel more for having done so.

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

Sins of the Father: Enchantress of Numbers


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Review: Enchantress of Numbers, by Jennifer Chiaverini
Dutton, 2017. 433 pp. $27

He’s magnetic as few people are, well titled, brilliant, a poetic genius, utterly debauched, and what would today be called manic-depressive. Her parents try to warn her, but Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, Baroness of Wentworth, will have her Lord Byron, believing that ardent love and a spotless moral example will cure him of his excesses. It’s 1815, the year of Waterloo, and a different sort of battle is about to begin.

Annabella’s delusion receives a sharp setback on her wedding day, and though the Byrons pass a few companionable weeks, during which Annabella becomes pregnant, their marriage quickly falls apart. Lord Byron prefers other women, especially his half-sister, Augusta, and only someone as innocent as Annabella could have failed to realize how deep that preference runs. By the time Annabella’s daughter is born, and he insists on naming her Augusta, as is his legal right, his long-suffering wife begins to get the idea. Shortly afterward, Annabella leaves Byron, a scandal so infamous the separation is forever referred to with a capital S. Henceforth, she calls her daughter only by her middle name, Ada, and sets out to eradicate any presence of her former husband, real or perceived. She decides that an overwrought imagination led to Byron’s depravity, and she watches her young child for that or any other evidence of “evil Byron blood.” Whenever Ada shows the least sign of willfulness, subversion, or curiosity deemed repugnant, Annabella leaves home, putting Ada in the hands of hirelings who enjoy correcting her every fault, many of which exist only in their eyes, and determined that no fairytales, flights of fancy, or moments spent ruminating ever be part of this young girl’s life.

I confess I have a visceral reaction to this novel, which could be subtitled How to Destroy a Child. I wanted to rescue this poor girl from parental tyranny and show her kindness, warmth, and encouragement. However, the stakes are even higher than that of an emotionally strangled child, for Ada is preternaturally intelligent, passionate about science, and a born mathematician. Luckily, Annabella tolerates this to some extent, or the world would have lost a genius. Known to history as Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s only legitimate child has been credited by some historians as having devised the first computer algorithm, in a journal article discussing the work of her close friend, Charles Babbage. But, as Chiaverini tells it, all this could have easily gone another way.

How this comes to be shapes the narrative, but Enchantress of Numbers is much more than a biographical novel, a genre that too often shows its limitations. Chiaverini succeeds brilliantly, in part because each chapter has its “no — and furthermore” and portrays Ada’s struggles lucidly. She longs to make her own decisions, and, as she gets older, to gain recognition for her science, not as an ornament to her father’s misbegotten reputation. Even better, Chiaverini carries these conflicts through Ada’s adulthood, and they never recede. Her mother remains withholding, elusive, and controlling; and men are men, with rights and privileges Ada can never claim. Moreover, though Ada counts among her friends such luminaries as Darwin, Dickens, Faraday, and Mary Somerville (Ada’s mentor, a brilliant polymath for whom a college at Oxford is now named), most scientists dismiss her work as dabbling, simply because she’s a woman. No doubt Countess Lovelace would have understood implicitly the endemic sexism in today’s Silicon Valley and have much to say about it.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess Lovelace, 1840 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, via Science and Society Picture Library)

But feminism aside, Enchantress of Numbers is also about a corrosive mother-daughter relationship and the rivalries that Annabella exploits for her own advantage. No question that Byron abused her, and since his subsequent poems satirize her mercilessly, she continues to suffer. But she passes on the punishment with interest, constricting Ada within an inch of her life while not letting her read the poems, so that the girl’s only knowledge of her father comes from her mother’s harangues. Even his family portrait is hidden in her grandparents’ house:

Whenever I was feeling especially brave, I would steal into the room alone and gaze up at the covered portrait, wondering what lay behind the dark green curtain. What did my father look like? Of course I did not remember . . . . There must be something truly terrible about his appearance or my grandmother would not have hidden him from view. . . . In my imagination — that wicked, persistent faculty — he became a chimera of the magnificent and the monstrous. . . . and . . . Since I was his child, something sinister and dangerous lurked within me too.

I wish that Chiaverini had devoted more space to Ada’s emotional reckonings late in her short life, though I understand why the author didn’t go that way. Enchantress of Numbers is lengthy as it is. But it’s utterly riveting as well as topical, and I highly recommend it.

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