Venice Illusions: Palace of the Drowned

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Review: Palace of the Drowned, by Christine Mangan
Flatiron, 2021. 272 pp. $28

It’s 1966, and Frances (Frankie) Croy has fled to Venice to hide. More than a decade has passed since her debut novel captured the London literary world, during which she’s published a string of failures. A particularly cutting review of her work has cast her writing style as a dinosaur whose long-deserved extinction can’t happen soon enough. A hypersensitive loner, Frankie has let that review get under her skin, believing — with some reason — that her editor shares the negative opinion.

At a publicity gathering for someone else, Frankie erupts violently, having misinterpreted postures and expressions around her as slights. The London tabloids eat this up, and Frankie just manages to avoid legal trouble. After a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital that does her no good and only spawns further gossip columns, she’s taken flight to Venice, where friends loan her a palazzo, known as the Palace of the Drowned.

The doge’s palace, Venice, November 1966, during a flood (unknown author; courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As you may have guessed, Frankie is quite the paranoid. But this novel operates under the old adage that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s after you. And much to her consternation, shortly after her arrival in Venice, a woman much younger than she accosts her, says they’ve met before, and declares herself an admirer of Frankie’s work, especially that debut novel.

Frankie’s certain she’s never met “the girl,” as she thinks of Gilly Larson (though she understands that descriptive is fast becoming déclassé) and wonders what her game is. Gilly fastens herself to Frankie like a leech, offering literary opinions she can’t seem to keep to herself, and which would appear to criticize Frankie’s work, except for that debut novel. To rephrase the adage: Just because a leech professes to like you doesn’t mean she won’t suck your blood.

So the game’s afoot, and a clever, well-crafted game it is. It’s not that Palace of the Drowned proposes a cat-and-mouse relationship between Frankie and Gilly. Rather, Frankie wonders whether that’s what they’ve got, or if she’s reading malign intent into innocent, if strange, behavior. Frankie goes back and forth, at times suspicious, at times grateful for Gilly’s companionship and generosity, from which she learns about the city she detested at first sight but has come to appreciate.

I like how Mangan taps into the pervasive fear belonging to people insecure in their accomplishments, especially when a seemingly more confident youngster comes along. I also like the way the narrative depicts an author fiercely anxious about her creative powers who fears she has only one thing to say and said it years ago. You don’t have to be a writer — or any form of artist — to put yourself in Frankie’s place.

That’s what saves the novel for me. The first hundred pages feel like a chore, because none of the characters appeal to me. Mangan has chosen to enact her tale with a brittle, difficult, even obnoxious cast. Frankie seems to care about no one but herself, and I don’t get why she instinctively pushes people away. Gilly’s self-righteous, intrusive, and controlling, too interested in what other people think of her to see them for themselves. Frankie’s friends, the ones who loan her the palazzo, strike poses I find tiresome, while her editor gives publishing a bad name (and makes a couple implausible moves).

Mangan’s assemblage does offer ample opportunity for conflict, therefore creating “no — and furthermore,” the essence of any thriller. She need not strain for plot points, because much of the story comes from within, and credibly so. You also don’t get too cozy with anyone, so you can readily believe them capable of just about anything. But if you’re like me, you cease to care, and only when Frankie’s vulnerabilities feel at all human, rather than merely repellent, do I latch on.

Palace of the Drowned is a literary thriller, and the prose does a fine job creating character and mood:

Before Venice, Frankie had never seen fog so thick.… Here, it rolled in discernible waves, curled around her ankles, so that she could feel it, engulfing her. The Venetian fog seemed capable of obscuring everything — and she had found a peculiar type of comfort in it, in being wrapped up, swaddled, and feeling as though a cloak of invisibility had been draped around her shoulders. It wasn’t just her sight that became affected — sound became muffled as well. Shapes no longer appeared rooted to anything.

Whether Palace of the Drowned will please you probably depends on your tolerance for its characters. Mangan’s a gifted author, and her psychological portrayals ring true. Yet this book is too cold for me to embrace.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in different form.

Of the Minotaur, and Men: Ariadne

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Review: Ariadne, by Jennifer Saint
Flatiron, 2021. 304 pp. $22

You all know the myth. Minos, king of Crete, keeps a monster, the Minotaur, in an impenetrable labyrinth that kills and eats humans. Every year, Athens sends young men and women as tribute, to be fed to the Minotaur. Except one year, Theseus, prince of Athens, takes his place among those chosen to die. And with the help of Ariadne, Minos’s elder daughter, he succeeds, against all odds. But once the hero has achieved his coup, which will grant him everlasting fame, what happens to Ariadne—and Phaedra, her younger sister—is another matter.

The Theseus-Minotaur myth offers a rich vein to explore, as Mary Renault did in The King Must Die. But Saint, as her title declares, focuses on the women—not just Ariadne but Phaedra; their mother, Pasiphae; and their sisters everywhere, whether abused wives, daughters forced into grotesque marriages, or victims of war and invasion.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, ca. 1520-23 (courtesy National Gallery, London, via Wikipedia; public domain)

Ariadne’s greatest virtue, I think, is Saint’s concept behind the characters, especially the two principals. She portrays Theseus as a man of physical presence and fearlessness utterly lacking in empathy or any feeling other than a thirst for adoration. He exists solely for glory, but as soon as he earns one trophy, he gets bored and goes off seeking others. Consequently, he imitates the gods, who have no empathy either, and who care only for how many worshipers they have and gifts they receive compared to their Olympian brethren. With that reinterpretation, Saint turns whole heroic ideal on its head, shows it to be a narcissistic lie. Brava.

But the years before Theseus comes to Crete, Ariadne has lived in terror and shame as sister to a monstrosity born of divine rape—Poseidon, having heard Minos brag about Pasiphae, impregnated her and made her a laughingstock. (Men indulge their pride; women suffer for it.) When her half-brother is still little, Ariadne tries to show him love and attention as best she can, and to reach her mother, who’s retreated into herself, failing at both. Saint excels here too, reimagining this relationship.

These are terrible burdens for a young girl to bear. Ariadne’s greatest—only—release becomes dancing:

I wove a complicated pattern across the wide, wooden circle, winding long red ribbons around my body. My bare feet beat out a wild, frantic rhythm on the polished tiles, and the long red tails swooped through the air, intertwining and dipping and swinging in time with me. As I danced faster and faster, the pounding of my feet grew louder in my head and blotted out the cruel laughter I heard tinkling behind me wherever I walked. I couldn’t even hear my brother’s low, guttural howls or the pleading cries of the unfortunates who were forced between those heavy, iron-bolted doors with the labrys etched deep into the stone above.

But Ariadne falls short in the telling. One passage may soar, sweeping you away, while the next may drop you into the trite or generic. Too many key moments involve long series of rhetorical questions to express moral or emotional confusion—a weak, overused device—and random descriptions or narration repeat words or phrases for no perceivable reason. Ariadne’s voice and thought process occasionally wanders from the ancient to the modern, rational world, particularly jarring because we’re dealing with a theocentric universe that knows nothing of Descartes or Bacon. Similarly, idioms like “I was floored” sit poorly on the tongue of an ancient Cretan princess. As for Phaedra, though well distinguished from her older sister, she seems to grow up almost overnight at age thirteen.

Halfway through, the narrative takes a momentous, exciting leap, as every novel should (and since I didn’t know that aspect of Ariadne’s myth, I won’t reveal it here, because the surprise element works beautifully). Suffice to say that Saint makes good use of these sections, some of my favorites in the book, to deepen the themes she introduces earlier.

As that part progresses, though, I get an uncomfortable feeling that, in Ariadne’s universe, everything men touch will invariably crumble, die, or rot from within. Only women have the capacity to nurture, speak and act honestly, or remain loyal. Men will always fall victim to glitter and glory; women won’t. This one-sided portrayal makes me roll my eyes, but it’s also a surprise, considering the psychological subtlety behind the premise and the main characters.

Ariadne will make you think, but as a novel, it’s uneven and inconsistent.

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

Portrait of a Family and an Era: Margreete’s Harbor

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Review: Margreete’s Harbor, by Eleanor Morse
St. Martin’s, 2021. 384 pp. $28

One day in 1955, Liddie Bright gets the phone call she’s long dreaded: Her mother, Margreete, has set fire to her kitchen, final proof that she can no longer live alone. An institution is out of the question; Margreete would never go. A woman who has survived three husbands and can be stubborn even in her lucid moments has equally effective ways of exerting her will at the times her clearer faculties desert her. So someone needs to care for her, and Liddie’s elected, or believes she is, which amounts to the same thing.

Trouble is, Liddie, her husband, Harry, and their two kids, Bernie and Eva, have a settled, more or less happy life in Michigan. Margreete lives in Burnt Harbor, Maine. Liddie, a professional cellist, has begun to establish herself with local ensembles after years of hard work. Harry has a teaching job he likes and good prospects. Bernie and Eva don’t want to go anywhere.

But the family does move, perhaps with too little marital conflict, though Morse gets a lot of mileage out of her premise. As the years progress, each character grapples with internal changes and those around them, or tries to. Since we’re mostly talking about the Sixties, there’s upheaval, and the author finds great meaning hitching the personal to the political. Harry, a conscientious objector during World War II, feels the Vietnam War like an insult and sounds off in his classrooms. Bernie’s only friend is Black, which puts the civil rights marches in an intimate context. Liddie, though less politically committed than her husband or son, nevertheless reflects the feminism in the air as she tries to figure out why her marriage constrains her.

A demonstrator against the Vietnam War offers a flower to a soldier guarding the Pentagon, October 1967 (courtesy Staff Sergeant Albert R. Simpson for the Department of the Army; National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Consequently, Margreete’s Harbor consists of small moments writ large, what the publishing industry calls “a quiet book,” an often pejorative label. After all, who wants to buy a “quiet” book? (Probably more people than editors realize.) That’s a pity, because you can always tell when an author injects noise for its own sake, and if those books sell better, they do so through shadow or trickery, not substance.

Instead, Morse gives you characters as deep as the Maine harbor on which they live, contradictory, sometimes cranky, secretive, and altogether real, depicted in gorgeous prose. She’s not afraid to show you their faults, to the extent that I have the urge to bang Harry’s and Liddie’s heads together—he, for his preaching and inability to admit mistakes; and she, for her self-pity. Yet their struggle redeems them, for they want to understand what happened to their dreams and their marriage, which, at times, feels like an increasingly leaky vessel. I love the way Morse portrays the kids, who battle for parental attention, reach for or push one another away, and try to find out who they are.

But Margreete’s the center, in many ways, and the keenly observed, loving portrait of a woman losing her mind will stay with you:

Some days she could think almost like normal, and other days everything was so mixed up — the jumble inside her, what happened yesterday, what did she eat for breakfast, who was that man who cooked in the kitchen and called everything a blue plate special. Words came from her mouth that she knew weren’t right the minute she said them, but the words she searched for fell down holes. She could see her blunders on the faces lifted to hers. The way strangers called her honey as though she were seven years old. The way they spoke loud to her as though she was deaf. She wasn’t deaf, she was haywire. If she could open her brain for them, they’d see. They would see the circuits floundering for their snaps. They would see the mess in there and know she was doing damn well considering what she had to work with.

If I have one complaint about Margreete’s Harbor, it’s the scope. The narrative has an interior feel, which I accept, to a point, because the family relationships matter most. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to see a wider camera angle, particularly to reveal Burnt Harbor. There’s a classroom, a fast-food joint, a principal’s office, all of which could exist anywhere—and again, we’re back to interiors. I want to feel the town vibe, a little, see a crowd scene. The brevity of certain chapters also perplexes me—scope in a different sense—though I understand that Morse has a many years to cover, changes in season, and so forth.

But these objections shouldn’t keep you from reading an excellent book. Whether you like relationship novels or wish to discover (or relive) the Sixties, portrayed here with great fidelity, you’ll be rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this post appears in different form, as does my interview with the author.

Betrayer and Betrayed: The Revolution of Marina M.

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Review: The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch
Little, Brown, 2017. 800 pp. $30

Marina Dmitrievna Makarova, as old as the century in 1916, can’t wait to break free of her constrained, privileged existence in Petrograd — or thinks that’s what she wants. Change is in the air, and desperation grips Russia, an empire bleeding its life away in a world war practically nobody supports, except her parents. Refusing to accept their rules or blandishments, she has a love affair or two, one with a fellow poet; marches on behalf of oppressed workers; and glories when the revolution topples the tsar. You can guess that this family will soon fracture even more.

But though Marina has been true to herself, she pays a terrible price. What the revolutionaries promise bears no relation to what happens in reality, and this passionate young woman, whose motto seems to be, “Act first, think afterward,” finds out the hard way. To name just two problems, it’s difficult to tell which threat is worse, famine or the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police.

As a bourgeoise, Marina’s already an enemy of the state and can’t be too careful, constantly having to prove herself despite who she is, a direct opposite to the advantages she enjoyed in her youth. Taking care doesn’t entirely square with her impulsive nature, but she’s also a quick study and finds she has more inner resources and survival skills than she knew.

The novel opens in California, 1932, so there’s no question she survives the revolution. As my regular readers know, I detest prologues, but there’s a practical reason for this one. The current volume is only the first of a series; the author has apparently decided not to leave the reader hanging at the end, and I think she’s right. Further, the journey’s more about how and why than where, and Marina covers a lot of ground, emotionally and physically.

Stinton Jones’s photograph of a demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd, March 1917 (courtesy https://archive.org/details/ russiainrevolut00jone via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Throughout, however, Fitch realizes the Russian atmosphere, be it Petrograd or rural peasantdom, with bold, lush strokes and complete authority. With unflagging attention to detail, she renders the idealism and mercilessness that suffuses the air, and gives you back alleys, great houses, and, in this instance, a Cheka prison:

The smell of wet walls and mold, and a dirty animal odor, increased as we descended. A slaughterhouse stench. He [the guard] walked me down the dim hall. Muffled voices came from behind thick doors. A rising shriek snaked from the base of my spine and coiled around my heart, squeezing my throat in its knot. We passed yellow walls the color of old teeth. Black sticky floors sucked at our shoes. Bare bulbs buzzed overhead. The rest of the country was plunged in darkness, but the Cheka would have its electricity.

Like the Russian novels Marina M. evokes, this one has much more to it than a sweeping lens and epic events — it’s the characters who count the most. Marina takes center stage, but her lovers come through with brilliant clarity, as do her mother, younger brother, and a radical revolutionary friend. You understand what motivates these people, all of whom have inner lives for the reader to navigate. So much happens that it seems our heroine has lived a full lifetime by her nineteenth birthday, but that weight never feels like a burden, even at over eight hundred pages. That’s because Fitch keeps you in touch with the feelings of the moment.

Much of the novel revolves around Marina’s sexual awakening, mirroring her political cognizance, as she learns more about attraction and sex as power. Though she enjoys men as lovers, she seldom loses her perspective on who gets to make decisions, and who has to follow them; who gives the orders; and who does the work. This is particularly trenchant, because the revolution that was supposed to honor all work and eliminate the roles of master and servant clearly hasn’t touched relations between men and women. Once, when she witnesses a peasant wife completely efface herself before her husband, Marina observes privately that Marx may have believed that power belongs to those who control the means of production, but this mother, who has produced four children, is her husband’s chattel.

Marina M. is also about betrayal, involving parents, children, lovers, ideals, or merely the greed and envy of the comrade listening at the keyhole. Marina, both victim and perpetrator, wants what she wants and won’t be denied. If at times she seems excessively larger than life or has an insight perhaps more convenient than earned, these are minor blemishes on an otherwise exceptional, engrossing novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from a neighborhood free library. I’m grateful to whoever donated it.

Hard-Boiled, Yet Warm: Fortune Favors the Dead

Review: Fortune Favors the Dead, by Stephen Spotswood
Doubleday, 2020. 321 pp. $27

Brooklyn, 1942. Willowjean Parker, a circus performer, has a temporary gig on her off nights guarding a building site, trying to earn some extra dough. That leads her to make two significant connections. First, she interrupts what might be an attempted murder, having deduced that a particular mug is trouble, and intervenes at the right moment. Second, the potential victim she rescues is Lillian Pentecost, the city’s most famous private detective, who offers Willowjean (known as Will) a job. Lillian suffers from MS, and she needs someone to perform legwork, preferably someone who’s agile, observant, and able to defend herself. Thus begins a fruitful partnership.

Three years later, a headline case involves the detectives. The prior year, Alistair Collins, whose steel company got fabulously rich on wartime government contracts, shot himself, which raised questions at the time. Now, the war has ended, and the board of directors resists calls to abandon the weapons business and return to peacetime manufactures. Those demands come from Abigail Collins, Alistair’s widow — and, as it happens, his former secretary. But she too dies, at a Halloween party where a medium conducts a séance, and practically everyone in the phone book is a suspect.

However, when the police get nowhere solving Abigail’s murder, the Collins family calls in Lillian and Will, hoping to make headway on the investigation without drawing attention. The insistence on secrecy might be only natural, given the Collins name and position of wealth and power, except that everybody seems to be lying. To add to the confusion, Will has a thing for Becca Collins, the late industrialist’s beautiful daughter, and the attraction seems mutual.

Throw in that Will, the proverbial child who grew up rough and ran away to join the circus, has a narrative style that will remind you, if the circumstances don’t, of the hard-boiled detective novels she devours. One quip reads, “She’d filled up with enough coffee to get Rip van Winkle doing the jitterbug”; or, about Becca, a “borderline wild child,” Will observes, “Though ‘wild’ by the standards of her tax bracket might constitute using the salad fork on the entrée.” Falling for a key witness is also an oldie, though the gender reversal provides a twist. You get the idea, though, that Spotswood’s aware of what he’s imitating, and his obvious love for the genre shows through. He also knows better than to take it too seriously.

Humphrey Bogart plays Raymond Chandler’s great hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, with Lauren Bacall as Vivian Rutledge, in their 1946 film The Big Sleep. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain, as the National Motion Picture Council did not renew the copyright.)

The author weaves the mystery with a sure hand, and though you may guess at a fact or two, he hides the trail well while still leaving everything in plain sight. Or just about; I’ll get to that in a second.

The real divergence from convention centers on the characters: They’re vulnerable. Lillian holds back more, because she’s naturally reserved, but you get her around the edges, and she’s human. I wish she came across more fully, but here’s a woman who knows she’s dying, yet asks no favors and gives her services pro bono to people who couldn’t afford her, like those with abusive husbands or crooked employers. Lillian has a cause, helping other women, which in part led her to Will.

Will’s more out there emotionally, and though her bio sounds like a cliché, she herself isn’t. She has passions and principles, and if she’s more likely to show the latter than the former, you do see them, and she’s not in the least buttoned down like her boss. She too will respond to a woman in distress, as she once was herself, a worthy feminist twist on an old formula. Always, beneath the tough exterior lurks a frightened child:

But sitting in that cell, my anxieties bred fast, and like with the bedbugs, scratching only made it worse. I spent the second night alone. The only light was from a dim bulb far down the corridor. The bravado I’d managed to conjure up and wear like a shield drained away. I pictured the cell door opening and my father stepping in, his face red, leather belt wrapped tight around his fist.
Found you.

A few chapters from the end, when the detectives are close to solving the mystery, Spotswood plainly withholds conclusions they’ve reached or specifics about preparations they’re making. I wish he hadn’t, but I understand why he does so. He also pulls a punch in the great revelatory scene, in which the detectives spill all (another trope, that). On a minor note, the courtesy title Ms. appears throughout, oddly enough. There’s a hint that Will is narrating from the distant future, but that would not explain why characters in 1945 would even think to speak like that.

However, these are quibbles. Fortune Favors the Dead is a terrific mystery, and this first volume in an intended series promises entertaining adventures.

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

A Way of Seeing: The Electric Hotel

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Review: The Electric Hotel, by Dominic Smith
FSG, 2019. 352 pp. $18

In 1962, Claude Ballard lives in a once-fashionable Los Angeles residential hotel, among old film containers and equipment and memories of a difficult, yet stimulating, past. A long-forgotten (fictional) film director whose magnum opus was The Electric Hotel, shown only once, in 1910, Claude lives out his days taking neighborhood walks with camera in hand and keeping a benevolent eye on a neighbor, a former silent film star whose memory and understanding of her surroundings often desert her.

Into Claude’s quiet, measured existence wanders Martin Embry, an academic field historian writing his dissertation, who takes one look at the director’s apartment and wants to know if the celluloid in those canisters has been developed and preserved. Actually, he takes one whiff and realizes they haven’t, for the decomposing film gives off a strong odor, like vinegar, which Claude has never noticed. That shocks him and makes him more receptive when Martin tries to persuade him to loan him the films that can still be salvaged in the laboratory. Just as important, he coaxes the hermit to recount his life story; it’s as though Claude suddenly realizes that he’s been gathering dust and doesn’t have to.

And what a story, from a lonely youth in Alsace — Claude’s French, by birth — in which his mother died of smallpox when he was quite young. Claude nearly succumbs himself, and afterward, when his vision falters — “the edges of objects began to slowly quake and fringe” — the village doctor sends him to a specialist:

… Claude emerged with a wire frame prescription wrapped behind his ears and it was suddenly as if he’d swum to the surface of a very deep lake. The world rushed back in as the coppered edge of an October leaf, the crinoline hem of his teacher’s skirt, the yellow-white flange of a chanterelle mushroom on his father’s foraging table… He was a diver emerging from the murky, myopic depths into a bell jar of crystalline edges and forms.

That’s exactly the same impression Claude has when, years later in Paris, he watches the first moving pictures of his life. The Lumière brothers, pioneers known today mostly to ardent cinephiles, create minute-long films of everyday life — a bus traveling down the street, people in a crowd. From that moment, Claude knows his life mission. Not only does he want to learn about and make films, he wants to see and record life the way the Lumières do. A shy, withdrawn person who expects no one to notice him, for him, this is true adventure.

Marcellin Auzolle’s 1896 publicity poster for a Lumière brothers comic film, L’Arroseur arrosé (The Waterer Watered), showing the astonished, enthralled audience (courtesy moah.org/exhibits/archives/movies/movie _theatres_p.html; public domain in the United States)

The Electric Hotel requires a reader’s patience, for the narrative takes a while to get places, portraying Claude’s career, associates, and obsessive love for Sabine Montrose, a French actress who stars in his films. But every time I asked myself if I really wanted to continue reading, once I started, I got lost in the story. It’s not just the writing, which often leaps off the page. Nor is it the fascinating detail about making movies back in the old days–and Smith means old, before any of the silent-film stars commonly discussed today got their start (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Mary Pickford, to name a few).

The tale of how Claude and his friends film The Electric Hotel, which occupies the bulk of the novel, involves a Siberian tiger, a dirigible, an impossible leading lady, and a cameo appearance by a grasping, self-involved Thomas Edison. Equally important, the novel portrays a forgotten time and place. As always, people crave novelty, wish to be entertained, even to be shocked. But after they see Claude’s films, they may resent them afterward, because their attraction to the images tells them something about themselves they’d have preferred not to know.

So too with Claude, who tries to hide behind the camera, even into old age, to avoid facing his past. But the past never leaves — it’s all there, whether on celluloid or in meaning—and he’s a casualty.

Most of the characters come through fully, at least the important ones; other than Claude and Sabine, I particularly like Chip Spalding, the Australian stunt man who covers himself with grease and sets himself on fire. However, several lesser figures remain faceless, and I wish the narrative had paid more attention to them, rather than include certain sequences that contribute very little. I especially wonder about a long First World War segment in Belgium, which, though well told, seems utterly superfluous (and bears little resemblance to any historical facts I know, or even possibilities).

Nevertheless, The Electric Hotel may beguile you as a tale of a bygone era, evoking passionate excitement over a way of seeing that hadn’t existed before—and which we now take for granted.

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

Mission Improbable: Three Hours in Paris

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Review: Three Hours in Paris, by Cara Black
Soho, 2020. 360 pp. $17

One Sunday in late June 1940, Kate Rees parachutes from a British airplane into France and reaches Paris, a city she knows well from before the war, now barely weeks into the German Occupation. But this visit, she won’t be frequenting the cafés she recalls so fondly, or the booksellers by the Seine, places where her late husband courted her. Kate’s in Paris to shoot Hitler, because British Intelligence has decoded German wire traffic and learned he’ll be there.

A gripping premise, to be sure, and from first to last, Three Hours in Paris never lets up. I admire the storytelling, which lives inside a flashing sign that says, “no — and furthermore.” But I have to take issue with just about everything else, because if the breathless pace ever paused, the absurd circumstances defy belief.

This famous photograph, from June 23, 1940, records Hitler’s brief, only visit to Paris. Flanking him are (left) Albert Speer, minister of armaments and war production, and Arno Breker, an artist. (Courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; public domain in the United States)

Kate’s American, a neutral citizen in June 1940, which makes her a peculiar choice for such a mission. Though she’s a crack shot, having grown up on a ranch in Oregon, that’s her sole qualification, aside from her American-accented French. What’s more, her handlers somehow gloss over the eventuality that she might be caught, and for some reason, she doesn’t press them. That’s typical of her training, rudimentary and brief, and of the vague, amateurish atmosphere of British Intelligence, rather like a classroom that’s slipped the teacher’s control. (To be fair, this isn’t the famed Special Operations Executive, but its predecessor, known as Section D.)

The German side of this equation seems almost as absurd. We have Gunter Hoffman, a Munich homicide detective somehow working for the Reichsicherheitsdienst, or security service, assigned to track down who fired at Hitler. In a very tired trope, Hoffman doesn’t particularly care for the Führer; with so many novels about disaffected Germans, it’s a wonder the war ever happened. But that’s less the problem here than the overhyped interservice rivalries. Those add a few “no — and furthermores” for the detective to grapple with, improbable as they are.

As for Paris, the city seems wide open for business, an unusual situation for a Sunday, as any Francophile traveler knows. Finally, Kate’s mission quickly morphs into much bigger game, which ups the stakes, always a plus, but at further expense to credulity.

However, to her credit, Black manages to finesse a few of these clunkers, countering expectations. That’s where Three Hours in Paris does best; nothing is certain, ever, and Kate never knows whom to trust, if anybody. If the author has chosen an unlikely protagonist on an improbable mission, she makes up for that in part by wedging her heroine into a tight space and tightens it further without respite. Human laxity does Kate a favor, every now and again, but every time she slips through a net, she’s earned her escape with ingenious, on-the-spot thinking, and you know her respite will be temporary.

That’s Black’s payoff from deciding to use an untrained agent; everything’s a surprise, nothing has been planned. But Kate’s up against a crack detective in Hoffman, tireless, equally adept at quick thinking. It’s a pleasure following his reasoning, wondering how he’ll box Kate in; you have to admire his skill. Black’s known for her Aimée Leduc mysteries, set in Paris, and the author has police procedure and the city down pat; I’m sure she realizes her Sunday portrayal stretches the truth. If the military and espionage operations appear fuzzy, Paris comes in crystal clear:

She took a side street and familiar scents assailed her: the tangy odor from a green metal pissoir, a whiff of a woman’s perfume, the acrid smoke of a hand-rolled cigarette. Rapid-fire Parisian argot spilled out of a shop, now bearing signs of future rationing regulations, and onto the sidewalk. The conversation was punctuated by the snort of an ice wagon horse, the clatter of the wagon’s wheels and the clip-clop of hooves on the cobbles, the flower seller’s shouts. The Paris she knew, if more subdued.

You have to like the two main characters, though neither comes through with much depth. Emotional transitions happen in an eyeblink, and more than a few sentences in these passages restate the obvious. But if you read Three Hours in Paris, you’re reading for a high-octane plot, and in that, the novel delivers.

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

Independence in India: The Henna Artist

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Review: The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi
Mira, 2020. 342 pp. $27

It’s 1955, eight years since India received its independence, and Lakshmi Shastri feels as though she too has finally earned her own. At thirty, living in Jaipur, Rajasthan, she has saved enough money to buy a house, something she’s always wanted, both to live without a landlady and for the respect and prestige owning property brings. Lakshmi’s practice in herbal medicine has grown, but she’s even better known for her henna artistry, in which she paints designs on women’s bodies for decoration, good luck, and as a health treatment. Word has gotten around among upper-class women that Lakshmi is capable, discreet, and above reproach; the last quality matters the most.

Mehndi (henna paste) applied to hands (courtesy AKS.9955 via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, none of them know that her parents married her off at fifteen because they couldn’t feed her — not that such a tale would bother them. Rather, when Lakshmi tired of her husband’s beatings, administered because she remained childless and therefore shamed him, she brought even greater shame by running away. If her clients knew that story, they’d cut her dead. Another unsavory secret: She earned her keep for years among courtesans, decorating them with henna and supplying herbal contraceptives and abortifacients. Now, in Jaipur, she still doles out these remedies, but under the table, often to rich men who pass them on to their mistresses.

But this income, though more or less comfortable, won’t pay for the cost overruns on Lakshmi’s house; her contractor demands payment. So, to cement her standing, garner an entrée to the maharani’s palace, and collect a nice piece of change, Lakshmi tries to broker a marriage between the son of her most important customer and the daughter of another wealthy client. Still, she has no reason to suspect that trouble beckons, until her abandoned husband tracks her down and hands over a sister she didn’t know she had, thirteen-year-old Radha. Explaining the girl’s sudden appearance, strange accent, and unpolished manners tests Lakshmi’s diplomatic skills (perhaps not enough, I think), but the real problem is Radha’s ungovernable character. The girl’s own desire for independence, too much, too fast, causes conflict between the siblings.

This setup, though complicated, promises a remarkable novel, and in the most important ways, Joshi delivers handsomely. The Henna Artist has its soap-opera arias, but the author redeems them somewhat by lingering in those moments, adding meaning, or returning to them. Problems that seem to resolve actually don’t, and a crucial one that defies solution is the gross inequity between men and women.

Lakshmi rails against it in her heart. Yet she still feels the shame she brought on herself, her parents, and her husband. This duality rings true, a woman perhaps slightly ahead of her time who can’t escape her split perspective — ideals in one frame, and cruel knowledge of cultural and social reality in the other. Contrasting her with Radha, a brilliant stroke, widens the split. Lakshmi wants her sister to escape the male-dominated trap to the extent she can. But Radha craves the familial love she never got, and though Lakshmi would want that herself, she’s cynical about it.

Joshi also provides a detailed social context, and a fascinating one it is, in which, for instance, individual shame doesn’t exist. “Humiliation spread, as easily as oil on wax paper, to the entire family,” which includes distant cousins. Another aspect, which Joshi reveals without hitting you over the head, involves upper-class preferences for the former colonial masters’ habits. Witness this passage, which, aside from the difference in costume from the British, evokes the certainty of superiority, the right to rule:

The Maharaja of Jaipur was easy to identify… the long brocaded coat, white leggings, ornamented headdress. He carried himself like the sportsman he was — chest thrust out, legs planted firmly on the ground, strong calves — taking up more physical space than his companions, including two nawabs, their Muslim headdresses and elaborately jeweled coats rivaling the maharaja’s.

Such preferences extend to hairstyles, luxuries, reading matter, and schooling. Closer to Joshi’s story, the two teenagers whose marriage she hopes to arrange are the most spoiled products of wealth and social position you can imagine. The chase for money and prestige runs through these pages and twists Lakshmi’s life.

I wish, however, that Lakshmi didn’t beat herself up quite so often, especially to apologize for what she didn’t do. I believe her powerful urge for self-blame, but if repeated too much, I begin to wonder whether a character showing such masochistic impulses could have achieved what she’s been credited with. Or is the author trying to burnish her protagonist’s image as a person of conscience? To me, she’d be more believable, therefore more appealing, with slightly less earnestness. But that said, The Henna Artist is a fine novel, well worth your time.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its receipts with independent bookstores.

Blood Will Have Blood: The Abstainer

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Review: The Abstainer, by Ian McGuire
Random House, 2020. 307 pp. $27

When the law hangs three members of the Fenian Brotherhood for killing a policeman in Manchester, England, in 1867, Constable James O’Connor knows the punishment will solve nothing. The Irish revolutionaries will retaliate, and since he’s the copper who has paid informants among them and understands his countrymen better than his English superiors, officialdom should listen. But they don’t. O’Connor’s place of birth condemns him in their eyes; they consider the Irish bloodthirsty, drunken savages, thieves, and heathens. Besides, O’Connor left the Dublin police under circumstances he won’t talk about, but which have something to do with drink.

Now, however, he abstains, and though his sympathetic, more human approach to law enforcement alternately puzzles and enrages his bosses, he speaks the sober truth no one wants to hear. But he does get them to pay attention when he learns that the New York Fenians have sent an assassin to Manchester to plot revenge for the hangings. Unfortunately, it will take more than O’Connor’s say-so to persuade his superiors to follow through in the ways he suggests, partly because they can’t believe that the drastic legal penalties they have just meted out will fail to curb the violence.

O’Connor has an inkling of what he’s up against, but not even he can anticipate the determination of his newest enemy. Stephen Doyle, though born in Ireland, fought for the Union in the Civil War, and he believes that he’s been sent to Manchester to fight another war whose rules are much the same. A colder, more ruthless and capable opponent would be hard to find, and he startles even his Fenian brethren in Manchester by his attitude. You know that he will give no quarter and expect none.

You also know that sooner or later, O’Connor and Doyle will meet, because the constable does his best to think along with the assassin. However, O’Connor has two distinct disadvantages. He can’t command, merely suggest, whereas Doyle dictates what he wants, and the Fenian foot soldiers obey. Secondly, and more important, O’Connor has a heart, and it’s still reeling from the untimely death of his beloved wife in Dublin. Further, a nephew he barely knows shows up from America and demands to play a role in the surveillance operation — a brilliant stroke of McGuire’s that raises the stakes immediately.

Consequently, this thriller has much more to it than the usual cat and mouse. You do want to know whether O’Connor and the police will thwart Doyle or fail to stop him, though it would be fairer to say that the narrative gives you no choice, compelling you to turn the pages. McGuire’s a terrific storyteller, and “no — and furthermore” lives in the very soot-infested air of Manchester. For me, the tension even feels too much, at times.

“Freedom to Ireland,” an 1866 Currier & Ives lithograph. The Fenian Brotherhood began in the United States and was eventually superseded by similar organizations (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

On top of that, The Abstainer explores an aspect of good versus evil that belongs to every conflict in which some believe that violence is the best or only solution, while others don’t. Naturally, that division fits Irish history under British rule, so though this story takes place in 1867, the same issues would apply in 1967 or beyond. Accordingly, McGuire’s really asking who has the upper hand: the side with fewer scruples or the one claiming the moral high ground? And is the upper hand the better hand to have, or not?

As befits this heady theme, McGuire deploys lucid, hard-edged prose that conveys deep feeling and the raw atmosphere. Early on in the novel, O’Connor witnesses the hanging — he’d rather not, but he’s supposed to be there — and it makes a terrible impression on him:

O’Connor hears the call of a crow like a dry cork being pulled from a bottle and, from over the river, a clatter of cartwheels and the whinny of a horse. For a long moment, the three men stand side by side beneath the heavy oak crossbeam, separate but conjoined, like rough-hewn caryatids, and then with a startling suddenness they are gone. Instead of their breathing, living bodies, there are only the three taught lines of rope like long vertical scratches on the prison wall. The crowd inhales, then gives a long guttural sigh like a wave slowly pulling back from a beach. O’Connor shudders, swallows, feels a pulse of nausea sweep up from his stomach into his mouth.

With this moment and many others, throughout The Abstainer, you see how thin the line between life and death, good fortune and bad. One false move here, and catastrophe would have resulted; one forgetful lapse there, and it arrives unexpectedly. That’s another theme, what happiness depends on, and how fleeting it can be.

If this story sounds bleak, in many ways, it is. But it’s also quite powerful and rings true; this is a novel to remember, and I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its proceeds with independent bookstores.

The Shakespeares, at Home: Hamnet

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Review: Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf, 2021. 305 pp. $27

During the 1580s, a young Latin tutor from Stratford-upon-Avon falls in love with an eccentric woman who keeps a kestrel and has a wicked stepmother, whom she longs to escape. Will’s pretty eccentric too, considering that he has no use for his father’s trade of glove making or any idea how to earn a living, except that he longs to do it far away from paternal fists and constant criticism. The son’s favored profession may involve words, though he never says. Neither family finds any of this amusing.

Even so, the lovers get what they wish, sort of — they marry but live in the groom’s household, so the nasty father is ever-present. The young couple has a daughter, Susanna, and twins, Judith and Hamnet. But in 1596, the plague claims Hamnet’s life, blighting his parents forever and upsetting the balance of the mixed families. So, as the subtitle suggests, Hamnet is a novel about the plague, but that’s like saying The Great Gatsby is about money.

O’Farrell has given us an extraordinarily intimate, subtle portrait of: a courtship and marriage; the gossamer boundary between life and death; the longing for love and connection despite that; the emotional currents that guide and twist a family; and daily life in Elizabethan England. And oh, by the way, Hamnet’s also the finest novel I’ve ever read about Shakespeare, likely to remain the gold standard for quite a while, though his last name never appears, and most of the narrative belongs to Agnes, his wife.

Not Anne, you ask? Apparently not, for her father’s last will referred to her as Agnes. But neither that fact, nor that Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable names in that time and place, should get in anyone’s way. Our principal players, no matter what you call them, are the chief attractions, but this drama gives every performer his or her due. I particularly like Judith and Hamnet, and Will’s younger siblings, Eliza and Edmond, but I find no weak links anywhere.

Start with Agnes, whom some believe a witch, and whose herbal knowledge counts against her that way, though many people ask her for remedies. She sees everything and believes she should, taking her perceptive abilities for granted — though wisely, she doesn’t say so. Nevertheless, she has an odd streak, witness her disarming habit of grasping people by the flesh between first finger and thumb:

That muscle between thumb and forefinger is, to her, irresistible. It can be shut and opened like the beak of a bird and all the strength of the grip can be found there, all the power of the grasp. A person’s ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned. All that they have held, kept, and all they long to grip is there in that place. It is possible, she realises, to find out everything you need to know about a person just by pressing it.

Normally, I’m skeptical about fortune-telling or otherworldly predictions, but Agnes believes in and practices them with utter conviction, and O’Farrell grounds her narrative in such extensive, well-chosen physical detail that I can’t argue. Agnes’s gift also explains why she trusts young Will on first meeting, and not only because he passes the thumb-flesh test. His way of speaking from and to the heart, in a style ten times more verbal than anyone else’s, yet without pedantry, shows her he takes his own flights of perception.

There’s no other obvious evidence of his poetic genius, but you can tell it’s earned and resides within him, so O’Farrell doesn’t stoop to having him quote a famous couplet or three. In a brilliant stroke and entirely realistic, Agnes has no clue what the theater entails, or what Will does with it in his lengthy absences in London, nor does she care. She’s more concerned with his emotional and physical constancy, which she can read in a glance, frown, or between the lines of a completely mundane letter about scenery, props, or actors.

Shakespeare’s Globe, a re-creation of the original, is a wonderful place to see a play. Notice the modern-day equivalent of Elizabethan “groundlings,” spectators who stand for the performance. (June 2018; my photo)

Otherwise, she fixes her gaze firmly on her children. Hamnet’s the dreamy boy who’s off in his own world, forgetful of chores, but a golden child whom everyone likes — a bit like his father, perhaps? And you know that Agnes, who loves her children fiercely and believes beyond persuasion that she can protect them from anything, will lose her footing completely after the plague enters the house.

O’Farrell renders her characters practically at corpuscle level, so their minds and bodies seem lived in to an extraordinary degree. The paragraph I quoted above is only one example of hundreds. To me, present-tense narratives have to strike the right note or seem precious, but Hamnet never falters. You might think that a moment-to-moment rendition, at length, would lose steam, or that revealing the boy’s death early on would spoil the tension. But Hamnet will prove you wrong, on both counts. The author selects her moments of intense examination carefully, but her approach proves that if your narrative plumbs deep meaning, it doesn’t matter how many minutes, days, weeks, or years pass. This novel, with luminous prose, beautifully rounded characters, and timeless themes will bowl you over.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its proceeds with independent bookstores.