A Moral Tale Without a Compass: Once a Midwife


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Once a Midwife, by Patricia Harman
Morrow, 2018. 487 pp. $17

Patience Hester, midwife of Liberty, West Virginia, senses the state of the world in November 1941 with terrible foreboding. Her husband, Daniel, a veterinarian and veteran of the First World War, has said that if war comes again to the United States, he will refuse to go. As healers, the Hesters’ moral predicament offers a compelling premise; add Patience’s past as a political activist for liberal causes and her distaste for Nazi Germany, and Harman has drawn her battle lines.

I wish I could tell you that Once a Midwife takes off from this promising platform, delivering a meaningful narrative that explores conscience and convenience. Unfortunately, directly or by implication, the novel lets just about everyone off the hook, which results in a moral tale lacking the requisite compass. Evil boils away until the dregs belong only to the local KKK or the SS assassins of Eastern European killing fields. Racism? Not here; the African-American characters may receive a cold look or two, but most everyone else is the soul of tolerance. Somehow, the Holocaust has become public knowledge in rural West Virginia a year before anywhere else, and, even more miraculously, nobody in Liberty voices prejudice against Jews, even at a meeting of America First, an organization notorious for anti-Semitism. Consequently, the bad guys are the few, irredeemable Them, whereas the good guys are Us. And since everyone’s the same underneath, why can’t we all live in peace and harmony?

Asking that all-important question in December 1941 might be a bit late, but, in any case, the people in this novel aren’t flexible enough to grapple with it. Patience tells the reader and other characters what she feels, referring to facts from her past or current events, announcements that turn a potential person into a headline. Daniel’s even less convincing, for he sounds alternately like a whiny adolescent and a holier-than-thou prophet. Rather than show why he’s a pacifist or have him struggle with his beliefs, Harman has him recite potted history that could have come from a seventh-grade textbook; when pressed, he tells generic stories about his war service. So he’s a talking head who’s got glib, half-baked answers for everything, not a deep-thinking man of conscience. But he’s not alone, for characters in Once a Midwife seldom talk to each other. They talk at each other, usually to dump information—and boy, are they misinformed.

I firmly believe that historical novelists should have poetic license, and that the writing and presentation matter ten times more than research. Still, I need to believe that the author has some sense of what facts she’s changing and why, whereas here, I question Harman’s grasp of the era, its events, and especially its timeline. The war seems to serve merely as a cauldron to dish up convenient plot points. Meanwhile, the premise contains enough untapped conflict to fill a novel by itself.

For instance, why doesn’t Patience — or anyone — ask Daniel whether, as a veterinarian serving a farm population, he’d try to get a deferment for an exempt profession, especially given his age? He might not listen, because he refuses even to register for the draft, but so much the better—another point of conflict with his beleaguered, overwhelmed wife, more room for him to show (not explain) his principles. Also, Daniel’s situation might have changed when, a year after Pearl Harbor, Selective Service lowered the age of draft liability to thirty-eight, a fact that the narrative doesn’t mention but a circumstance that offers another possible iteration of the same conflict.

But these moral complexities, which should be the novel’s strength, wind up resolving themselves. At several points, Patience wonders whether her husband’s a weakling or has taken dubious positions, for which she hates him for short bursts, invariably snapping out of it. It’s as though the narrative prevents the characters from getting too upset with one another—a common flaw in feel-good novels, but unfortunately, Harman pushes this into the realm of cluelessness. She evokes the hurtful, ignorant trope that divides Germany into a basically decent but cowed majority and a tiny sliver guilty of all evil, a morally simplistic position that denies history and insults the victims.

Worse, Harman underlines the (studiously low-level) bigotry, rampant jingoism, small-mindedness, and government propaganda visible in Liberty; weighs that against Axis lies and brutalities; and implies that it’s a wash. I must confess I nearly lost it when a group of German POWs recently arrived to West Virginia sing a Christmas carol and in this way prove their basic humanity to Patience’s satisfaction. With little hesitation–and even less thought to what they might have done–she gives a pass to men who’ve bloodied and terrorized half of Europe. Where’s the moral sense in that?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Telling Too Much: The Hamilton Affair


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Hamilton Affair, by Elizabeth Cobbs
Arcade, 2016. 403 pp. $26

He’s illegitimate, an orphan born to poverty in St. Croix; she’s the daughter of one of upstate New York’s first families. He, though a devoted family man who yearns for the warm, close-knit hearth he never had, loves nothing more than a fight, whether on a battlefield or in a political assembly. She, though she picks up the pieces — her lot as a woman — resents her husband’s role as a lightning rod and correctly predicts that they’ll suffer for it.

This is the romance between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, and a tragic, touching tale it is. Cobbs begins the narrative with each protagonist as a child. Alexander struggles against the shame of his birth, and you don’t need to be told (though Cobbs does) that he’ll grow up touchy about his honor, in an era when the concept already has a rigid, constraining definition.

James Sharples’s pastel portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, 1795 (courtesy Smithsonian Institution, via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Eliza feels like the odd one out too, awkward, unschooled, incapable of knowing what to say or how to act. An early passage recounts her visit with her father to a conclave of the Six Nations:

The shadowy interior smelled of wood smoke and roasting meat. Shelves burdened with gourds and lidded baskets lined the walls, and ears of drying maize tied by their silks hung from the rafters. Groups of men lounged on rugs, some made from bearskin, others from cloth. The translator showed them to a bench facing a low table made from a single plank. Thank goodness, Eliza thought, since she hadn’t the faintest idea how to sit on a bearskin with the dignity she knew her father expected.

The description reveals a major strength of The Hamilton Affair. Cobbs, a noted historian, renders the scenery, sensations of everyday life, mores, and issues in vivid, economical prose. You can see, for example, how the North-South divide over slavery, banking, manufacturing, trade, and foreign policy crops up the minute the Revolution ends, setting up the Civil War. Cobbs does a great service paying due homage to Hamilton, whom I had always thought a man of ability but an elitist. I’ve now learned that this is the viewpoint his detractors left to history, because they had the last word.

But it’s how he got those enemies that makes Cobbs’s narrative of interest. Her Hamilton doesn’t suffer a fool gladly, but there’s much more to it. How ironic that his opponents cast him as beholden to patrician interests when they’re the patricians — the Virginia planters like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, or the New York gentry like Burr or Clinton. As a largely self-taught polymath, a nobody who rises to be Washington’s right hand—his accomplishments are truly mind-boggling–Hamilton poses a threat to men who feel they have the right to rule. Throw in his intense dislike of slavery, and he’s doomed.

What a fascinating story, but as a novel, The Hamilton Affair seldom escapes a mechanical, ordained feel. Eliza, a woman much put-upon, would have been much more sympathetic (rather than an object of pity) had she more depth, as in a serious flaw or three. She represents important feminist ideals before they had that name, but she’d symbolize them all the better as a rounded character.

The narrative structure is the crucial weakness, though. Cobbs chooses key dramatic events for many chapters, which is fine, but the intent to cover her protagonists’ entire lives sets up gaps of time and circumstance, which in turn involves playing catch-up so that the reader doesn’t get lost. As a consequence, the author throws dozens of facts into dialogue and internal narrative, which land with a dull thud; and many chapters start at pivotal moments, only to backtrack, covering so much material that the forward narrative stalls. It’s just too much to fit, especially when the two principals don’t meet until about page 120.

If fact, description, and the march of history take precedence here, that leaves less space for emotions, and Cobbs surrenders to the temptation of telling rather than showing them, even at make-or-break moments. During the courtship, for instance, when Hamilton sees that he can’t put off telling Eliza about his birth and early life, you’d think he’d feel intensely pent-up. Here’s a man passionately in love with a beautiful, adventuresome, understanding young woman, yet he fears she’ll reject him once she knows the truth of his origins. This emotional moment, surely among the most significant of Hamilton’s life, receives a brief, rote paragraph.

I’ll say this for The Hamilton Affair: The book prompts me to put Ron Chernow’s highly regarded biography of the great man on my to-be-read pile. But as fiction, Cobbs’s novel tries to tell too much, and winds up showing too little.

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

Albania Bleeds: Chronicle in Stone


, , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare
Translated from the Albanian by Arshi Pipa
Edited by David Bellos
Arcade, 2011. 301 pp. $18

A nameless, near-sighted young boy living in a small Albanian city near the Greek border grows up in the late 1930s. To call him an unreliable narrator would be incorrect, for he sees everything unfold around him with great precision — his relatively cushioned existence during the Italian annexation of spring 1939, the world war that soon follows, and numerous occupations, as the city changes hands.

Rather, his myopia is emotional, for he understands little or nothing of what goes on around him, which his overactive imagination turns inside out. And that could not be otherwise, when, for some reason never explained, he receives no schooling, and the only perspective he hears comes mostly from elderly relatives and neighborhood widows, whose constant preoccupation is sorcery. Every evil occurrence, or even those actually benign, are explained by malevolent magic, whether it’s a boy who starts wearing eyeglasses — unthinkable! — or a stolen kiss on the street. A young woman is said to sprout a beard; witchcraft must surely be responsible, a sign that the world will end soon (a familiar refrain). Burn your nail clippings and the hair in your hairbrushes, or the witches will target you.

Italian invasion of Albania, April 1939 (courtesy Axis History Forum via Wikimedia Commons)

So Kadare’s naïve narrator may be forgiven for wanting to visit the slaughterhouse, because it promises entertainment, or for admiring the aerodrome the Italians build. He ascribes different characters to the warplanes, as if they were human, and seems not to reckon on what it means that they bomb other places, though he soon finds out what that feels like.

I’ve never much cared for magical realism, and Chronicle in Stone skates close to my sensibilities. But as a metaphorical tale about hatred and divisiveness, the novel packs a wallop — even without a plot. Several characters try to break out of their roles and suffer for it, and the boy comes to learn something of what pleasure and evil mean. But I think the real power — and story, such as it is — comes from Kadare’s painstaking account of persistent animosities that seemingly arise out of nothing for what looks different or potentially threatening, such as the alleged beard that will end the world. It’s a short walk from these prejudices to the violence that grips the city (read: Albania), or, for that matter, juxtaposing a jaunt to the slaughterhouse and a world war.

As with other highly metaphorical novels, the prose has a lot of work to do, and Kadare’s is flawless. This early passage conveys the boy’s imagination and fascination with violent destiny:

I pictured the countless drops rolling down the sloping roof, hurtling to earth to turn to mist that would rise again in the high, white sky. Little did they know that a clever trap, a tin gutter, awaited them on the eaves. Just as they were about to make the leap from roof to ground, they suddenly found themselves caught in the narrow pipe with thousands of companions, asking “Where are we going, where are they taking us?” Then, before they could recover from that mad race, they plummeted into a deep prison, the great cistern of our house.
Here ended the raindrops’ life of joy and freedom.

Kadare captures the stubbornness of people who, for months on end, speak only of a select few topics — you know what they are — take absurd pride in an antiaircraft gun that never hits anything, or expect corruption everywhere. Does empathy even exist? Every once in a while, someone talks sense, but you can be certain no one will listen, to the point that the reader has to laugh. So in a way, the main thrust of Chronicle in Stone is comic, darkly so, which is why having a half-blind, ignorant narrator makes perfect sense.

I can’t say this book is for everyone; if you open it and look for a plot, a climax, or a crescendo, you’ll be disappointed. And yet, this slight novel is worth your time, and the pages will fly by.

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

Human Flaws Exposed: Dazzle Patterns


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Dazzle Patterns, by Allison Watt
Freehand, 2018. 339 pp. $22

Clare Holmes works in a glassworks in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, a port city that buzzes with wartime traffic. Living in the big town instead of on her parents’ farm has provoked a constant, simmering conflict with Clare’s controlling mother, Ada. But Clare has plans that Ada would never dream of. The young woman is saving up for her passage to France so that she can become a Red Cross nurse and be near her soldier fiancé, Leo.

However, when a ship blows up in the harbor, the blast destroys the glassworks and a swath of town, leaving many dead. The consequences for Clare are severe and cascading. Not only does she lose an eye, which means Ada grabs her and brings her home; Clare worries that Leo won’t want her anymore; and, worse, the post-traumatic stresses sap her desire to live. Her friends hold out hope that she’ll be able to return to the glassworks, but her job there involved checking the product for flaws, and the boss isn’t the only one who doubts she can manage that with only one eye. It’s a nice twist, the flaw-checker who feels — and is — damaged herself. And she becomes so aware of her imperfection that she can hardly get out of bed, let alone function.

But Clare is nothing if not independent-minded, and Watt has put her protagonist’s inner life on vivid display. Overcoming her disability literally means Clare has to develop another way to see the world in perspective; and when you read that she takes up drawing, the metaphor gains breadth. But her adaptation of course involves how she sees herself, and this is my favorite aspect of Dazzle Patterns. Where once Clare defined the future as being Leo’s wife, or, more immediately, staying out of Ada’s clutches and becoming a nurse, she now takes a larger view. It’s as if Clare’s loss and necessary compensation for it have let her grow in unforeseeable ways, to extend the metaphor even further.

Watt’s at her best when the narrative stays in Halifax. She portrays the home front and all its fears and prejudices with a sure hand, as well as the boarding house Clare lives in, the glassworks, and the horrific aftermath of the explosion. Here’s the destruction recounted through the eyes of Fred, a glassblower whom Clare later befriends:

Walking back to his rooming house Fred saw houses fallen in upon themselves, charred like abandoned bonfires, or burnt completely away, only the chimneys flooded with black puddles of ash and snow. Standing houses stared blank-eyed, all their windows gone. Telephone poles tilted. On the street, a breadbox, a school bag, a woman’s evening shoe, black patent with a pointed toe and a velvet bow. At the corner of Agricola and West Street, Fred brushed the snow off and righted an empty baby carriage.

But I think Fred’s less successful than Clare as a character. Watt makes him a prewar German immigrant, which allows her to evoke the jingoistic suspicion of an “enemy alien” who is actually a naturalized Canadian. I like the theme and how Watt plays it, but Fred’s a bit too good to be true, as if the chief victim of the narrative must be a paragon.

Leo’s more believable as a person, but what happens to him, less so. He’s a sapper, assisting the engineer officer who tunnels under German lines. Watt’s depiction of that rings true. But the narrative fudges on what the Western Front looks and feels like, and other details are simply inaccurate. Most critically—and I don’t want to reveal too much–Watt fails to consider what a civilian’s possession of a firearm in a war zone can mean, as in getting the entire village put up against a wall. Moreover, that entire setup seems designed to alter Leo in convenient ways, whereas leaving him as he was, though messier, would add depth and conflict.

Finally, I hope that what I read is an uncorrected proof — although it doesn’t say so — and that a proofreader will catch mistakes like the constant misspelling of Fred’s German name, and the typographical and grammatical errors that crop up.

Still, I enjoyed Dazzle Patterns. The story is compelling, Watt tells it with brio, and has provided a heroine worthy of your time and attention.

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

Internal Medicine: The Winter Soldier


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason
Little, Brown, 2018. 319 pp. $28

In 1915, war sends Lucius Krzelewski, a third-year Polish medical student, to a regimental hospital somewhere on the Polish front. But what that sounds like bears no relation to what he finds there — he’s the only doctor, aided by a single nurse and three orderlies, and they toil inside a dark, dank, freezing church whose roof has a large hole in it. They have no x-ray machine, laboratory, or hospital beds, and though they have fairly steady supplies of dressings, carbolic, morphine, and chloral, the emergency medicine is far from anything Lucius has ever heard of. In fact, he’s hardly ever touched a patient, his training having consisted of rote memory and recitations. He does possess an extraordinary internalized representation of what the human body looks like beneath the skin, and his diagnostic instincts are very sharp. Unfortunately, what matters now is how quickly and effectively he can perform amputations.

However, Sister Margarete, the nurse, is there to teach him, and he proves a quick study. Not always quick enough for her taste, to be sure — she has a sardonic way of observing formalities that tells him she knows more about his inexperience than she’s letting on. She also senses his social unease, though not its cause, a stuffy, aristocratic upbringing:

He wondered if he had grown up in another time or place — among a different, silent people, his unease would never have been noticed. But in Vienna, among the eloquent, where frivolity had been cultivated into a faith, he knew that others saw him falter. Lucius: the name, chosen by his father after the legendary kings of Rome, itself was mockery; he was anything but light. By his thirteenth birthday, so terrified by his mother’s disapproval, so increasingly uncertain of anything to say at all, his unease began to appear in a quiver of his lip, a nervous twisting of his fingers, and at last, a stutter.

Ever since then, Lucius has seldom been able to talk to anyone easily, unless it’s about medicine, for which he has that preternatural, internal feel. It is his life raft, his hope, his balm for what ails him, a malady he cannot diagnose. Yet he can talk to sister Margarete. That in itself is astonishing, for she belongs to the Order of Saint Catherine of Siena, speaks about lice in biblical phrases, and has been known to withhold painkillers from patients who try to trespass certain boundaries, a mistake they don’t make twice.

Yet this formidable, utterly correct angel of mercy isn’t all she seems, any more than Lucius is, which may explain the growing, unspoken attraction between them. The jacket cover typically tells too much, so I advise against reading it, but this much I’ll say: The arrival of a soldier suffering acute shell shock provides a defining moment in the narrative.

And those hospital scenes are terrific. Mason is not only an exceptionally accomplished novelist, he teaches psychiatry. You sense that his portrayal of psychological battle trauma, terse and stripped-down as it is, is all the more authentic, without a trace of the theatrical. Likewise, his depictions of incompetence, class-consciousness, bitter ethnic rivalry, and utter disarray within the Austro-Hungarian Army ring absolutely true. There’s a brief battle scene (which, though vivid, seems a bit contrived), but Mason’s more concerned with suffering behind the lines and what people can and will do when they are pushed far enough. Only in those circumstances can Lucius see his shortcomings and capacities, which is why, despite the intense cruelty, pain, and heartache, his experience transforms him. Internal medicine, indeed.

Where The Winter Soldier troubles me is toward the beginning and the end. Once Lucius sets eyes on his so-called regimental hospital, the forward narrative pauses for forty or so pages to recount his upbringing and education. It’s interesting, mostly, beautifully written, and often darkly funny, yet I found myself saying, Oh, come on, already. Does the novel need all of this material, and must it come right there? I invite you to decide, as with the ending, not all of which seems entirely credible to me.

But The Winter Soldier is an excellent novel, an unusual tale of romance and coming of age, set against an equally unusual portrayal of war.

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

Between Two Fires: Sugar Money


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Sugar Money, by Jane Harris
Arcade, 2018. 387 pp. $25

No more callous, lunatic scheme was ever devised. It’s 1765, and Father Cléophas of the Frères de la Charité in St. Pierre, Martinique, is plotting to recapture slaves left behind when his brethren and he fled Grenada from British forces. Cléophas has a paper that, he claims, grants him power of attorney over his lost property. But that sounds dubious even to the two slave brothers he orders to sail to Grenada, Emile and Lucien, so the British are unlikely to listen. The only hope of success, Emile believes, lies with persuasion and stealth, treating directly with the fellow slaves his brother and he grew up with. Cléophas is a brute, and several of his colleagues are worse, but the British slave masters outdo them. Will the slaves on Grenada leave one island for another, if Emile can convince them that servitude on Martinique will be better?

St.-Pierre, Martinique, as it appeared in 2008. In 1902, the eruption of Mt. Pelée (in the background) killed 28,000 people and destroyed the entire town (courtesy Zinneke via Wikimedia Commons)

Much hinges on the relationship between Emile, twenty-eight, and Lucien, thirteen. The elder, who grasps the danger, tries to leave the younger behind. But perhaps because of pride, Emile fails to explain how vulnerable they’ll be — an admission he can’t easily make — while Lucien, who idealizes his brother, lacks the maturity to see outside his own concerns. Rather, he assumes that Emile is swatting him away, as always, and since he wants people to take him as a man and earn big brother’s respect, he insists on going. Besides, since he can read a little and speak some English, neither of which Emile can do, Cléophas decides that Lucien must go.

What a breathtaking premise, laden with potential for heartbreak and transcendence. Harris delivers, on all counts. Sugar Money is a compelling, unusual story, riveting from start to finish. “No — and furthermore” lives in these pages, and the moral stakes are enormous, the secret to extraordinary fiction. Vivid as a prose poem seasoned with kréyol phrases, the novel succeeds on many levels — as adventure, a tale of another time, a narrative of sibling rivalry, and an exposé of colonialism.

It’s the prose that takes you first, though, Lucien’s narration, lush and rhythmic:

Some masters are swift to get to the point when they give instruction; you might say they go directly to the main door, cross the threshold, no hesitation. Father Cléophas was not one of these. He would walk around the property first, try the windows, then wander off into the garden to gaze at the roof before eventually he retrace his steps to the front of the dwelling and give a tentative knock and — whiles he went on this bumbling circumbendibus — you oblige to go with him. . . .With this rigmarole and in other ways, Cléophas like to cultivate the impression of being an absent-minded, kindly fellow and he would beguile you with that bilge awhile until you became better acquainted and began to cognise just how sly he could be, for true.

Much of the story revolves around Lucien’s refusal to follow directions, and Emile’s belief in his considerable skills at diplomacy and leadership, which play out between the brothers as well as in their mission. With the odds so great against them, there’s no room for error, and the narrative feels unbearably tense.

My only criticism of Sugar Money is that, at times, Harris employs physical clichés for Lucien’s emotional transitions — heartbeat, guts, etc. — when she’s otherwise careful to render those moments more specifically and genuinely. But that’s an intermittent, minor, complaint.

Instead, my biggest quarrel is with the publicist who decided that the first thing to mention on the jacket flap is how a true story inspired the novel. Does that matter? Is that why people read fiction, and would they move over to the nonfiction shelf if Harris had made everything up? Just as historical truth can’t rescue a narrative that seems implausible, the ability to weave human truth into historical fiction makes it irrelevant whether events happened exactly as written. Is the publisher underestimating the reading public, or is that lack of confidence warranted?

But if we’re talking history, recall that by the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ending the Seven Years’ War (aka the French and Indian War), Britain, which had conquered several Caribbean islands, kept Grenada, among others, while returning Martinique and still others to France. That’s the geopolitical outline behind Sugar Money, but, in reading how these slaves suffer, I couldn’t help take the timeline further. Britain’s attempt to pay for that long, expensive conflict led to taxes on tea and newspapers in North America and cries of “no taxation without representation.” But the slaves on Martinique and Grenada, caught between French and British fires, had much more to complain about.

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

Four (More?) Years!


, , , , , , , , , ,

This week, Novelhistorian turns four, which means I’ve reviewed more than two hundred books. As many of you know, each year I write a post in which I mention, in thumbnail, those that have made the deepest impression on me–or, to put it another way, those I expect I’ll still remember after another fifty-odd books have passed through my hands. This year, I’ve chosen eleven, as follows:

Nicole Lundrigan conveys the hatreds, will to vengeance, and oppression that mark Tito’s postwar Yugoslavia in The Widow Tree, told through the eyes of three teenagers. Her tense, moving narrative shows that for war’s survivors, trust is the first casualty.

The Infidel Stain follows the two amateur detectives M. J. Carter introduced in Strangler Vine, this time in 1840s England, as they unravel the mysteries behind murders committed in a politically charged atmosphere. Carter’s prose and characterizations are first-rate, and she re-creates the upheaval of the Hungry Forties with breathtaking vividness.

Paris Spring, James Naughtie’s excellent thriller about the Paris student uprising of 1968, echoes John Le Carré in its elegant plot with few moving parts, focus on motive, and characters who believe in what they’re doing. It may resolve too neatly, but Naughtie knows his ground, especially the brethren of spydom.

Eleanor Catton tells a Victorian-style epic mystery in The Luminaries, about gold-rush greed, deception, and loyalty in 1860s New Zealand. Where many authors struggle to intersect two disparate lives without resorting to contrivance, Catton seamlessly weaves more than a dozen threads. Skip the astrological charts she includes and dive in.

In The Fifth Servant, Kenneth Wishnia renders a remarkably imaginative mystery, set in sixteenth-century Prague. The Christian community claims that a girl has been murdered so that the Jews can use her blood to make Passover matzo–the old blood-libel myth–and a rabbinical student attempts to solve the case by using his knowledge of the Talmud.

With Mrs. Osmond, John Banville pens the unthinkable, a sequel to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, down to the loop-the-loop sentences that invariably arrive at truth and the intense feelings rendered in a gesture, a glance. But it’s far more than imitation James, which you need not have read to appreciate this novel; Banville underlines the heroine’s masochism, which, he argues, amounts to vanity, an unusual, striking perception.

There are grittier mysteries out there than The Inheritance, but Charles Finch’s warm-blooded Victorian detective, Lenox, is an exceptionally clever sleuth, and the understanding of human nature and the kindness and generosity that suffuse the writing make this novel stand out. Not only will you be entertained, you’ll learn tidbits of information that Finch likes to throw in–for instance, why the British drive on the left.

It’s not kindness or generosity that mark The Moment Before Drowning, James Brydon’s tale that blends colonial war in 1950s Algeria with a grisly murder in Brittany, but it’s a terrific story, and I guarantee it will grip you and make you think. Brydon juxtaposes the two narratives to ask what purposes the law and its enforcement actually serve. Be warned about the torture scenes, but nothing is gratuitous or sensational.

The Wanderers, Tim Pears’s gorgeous, subtle novel, tells a heart-breaking story about two teenagers’ suffering and longing, set in Devon around 1912. She’s the daughter of the manor; he’s the servant’s son exiled from the estate. Pears leaves questions hanging, which will bother some readers, but his prose and characterizations are flawless, and the tension never lags in this simplest of plots.

Another novel I admire for elegant simplicity is The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader’s superb tale about Sarah, an English girl in 1255 who chooses to be a religious hermit at age seventeen. Why she does so, and how her choice changes many lives, not just her own, makes a remarkably complex story, so beautifully and truthfully rendered that you have to remind yourself it’s a first novel.

Last on my list, but only because I reviewed it most recently, is The Mercy Seat, Elizabeth H. Winthrop’s elegiac tale about Louisiana justice in 1943. Nine voices recount the hours before the scheduled execution of Willie Jones, an African-American teenager convicted of rape, and how the verdict has fractured the town. Winthrop manages to recount this heart-rending, provocative story in brief, staccato chapters that form an eloquently coherent whole, pure sorcery that will haunt you.

Those are my eleven favorites. I’ve enjoyed writing my reviews this year and hope you’ve liked reading them.

Walking Dead: The Deepest Grave


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Deepest Grave, by Jeri Westerson
Severn House, 2018. 200 pp. $29

The waning years of the fourteenth century are a bloody time in London, it seems. Recently buried corpses have been seen traipsing about the cemetery at St. Modwen’s church, dragging their coffins. A seven-year-old has confessed to killing his best friend’s father, a wealthy cloth merchant, and a relic related to St. Modwen has disappeared from that same household.

Enter Crispin Guest, the so-called Tracker of London, who solves mysteries like these for sixpence a day. The Deepest Grave is the eleventh novel of the series featuring his adventures, but Westerson catches you up on his previous career as a knight serving John of Gaunt, when Crispin had a title, lands, and power. He lost them because he backed the wrong horse when Richard II ascended the throne. If the series goes another seven historical years, Crispin’s fortunes should improve when Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son, usurps Richard’s crown. Naturally, however, Westerson’s characters don’t know this, and just about everyone reminds Guest, in one way or another, that he’s a traitor lucky to be alive. One who’s kinder is his former lover, Philippa Walcote, mother of the boy who has confessed to murder — an impossibility, by all accounts, yet the child figures to hang unless Crispin can work his rational magic.

Renold Elstracke’s posthumous 1617 print of Dick Whittington, fourteenth-century London’s famous lord mayor, and his equally famous cat (courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London, via Wikimedia Commons)

I like Guest’s comedown, which forces our hero to earn an honest living and abide in humble conditions, with his apprentice, Jack, and Jack’s pregnant wife. This unusual ménage makes for an intriguing setup and offers opportunities that, unfortunately, Westerson fails to exploit. For instance, the narrative never delves past the surface of its disgraced protagonist’s feelings, whether as a once-favored somebody who has lost everything, or a middle-aged man who has never married. The narrative tells you straight out that he has regrets, but I wanted to see them in action, especially his struggle with them, and how others might view them. Further, he’s too decent to chafe at his reduced circumstances, which I find unrealistic and a shame. Anyone of any era would have strong feelings about falling from grace, and this is the fourteenth century, when venality’s the rule rather than the exception.

But Westerson has a different agenda. Character doesn’t drive The Deepest Grave, which is fine, but I wish it were harder to tell the good guys from the bad, or that her people showed more than a single, overriding trait. Also, a few interactions Crispin has when he’s not solving crimes feel predictable and pat; I’d like this book a whole lot better if his private life were messier.

What all this adds up to is a generic feel, which I see echoed in the prose:

He was able to enjoy the night, the stars peeking in and out of the cloud cover, wisping across the night sky between the tall buildings. The glittering stars marched ahead of them on a cloudy trail. The shops and houses were blue in the falling light. Only the wealthier houses had gleaming candles shining through glass windows. The rest were barred with shutters, with only a stripe or two of light.

To me, paragraphs like these—the only exterior descriptions in the novel–give little sense of London or fourteenth-century English life. I get that the sky is cloudy, but I don’t really visualize it, or what Guest thinks about it; and that sky could have been there yesterday as well as five hundred years ago. How tall were the buildings? What did the glass look like? The streets?

I’m also skeptical that Guest’s belief in reason rather than Scripture meets so little surprise or opposition, when such thinking was a burning offense. Does Jack, who grew up a thief as a young child, really quote Aristotle, as Guest does? Would a fourteenth-century man, no matter how erudite or educated, link the heart to the pumping of blood? (Westerson could have made that point a different way, but the phrasing jumped out at me.)

Nevertheless, The Deepest Grave has its charms. Westerson integrates the two stories, the churchyard walks and the merchant’s murder, with skill and economy. She deftly employs “no — and furthermore,” so that nothing comes too easily for Crispin, who makes mistakes. Unlike Crispin the man, the Tracker of London follows a less predictable path, and the puzzles will keep you guessing.

The Deepest Grave makes thinner, less satisfying fare than other historical mysteries from Severn House, but it’s entertaining and clever in its way.

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

Every Commandment Broken: Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army


, , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army, by Edoardo Albert
Endeavour Quill, 2018. 215 pp. £8

The narrator of this clever, funny picaresque set in ninth-century England tells you what’s what right away. A “vain dissimulator and crafty poltroon,” as he describes himself, Conrad has no use for compassion, empathy, selflessness, altruism, or physical discomfort and believes that bad luck immediately descends if he ever does anything remotely involving them. As it happens, though, Conrad is also a monk — don’t ask — which makes him a little different. Especially from his companion, Brother Odo, who actually takes his vows seriously and seems not to notice that Conrad has broken every commandment and a lot else.

The story begins in a pigsty, appropriately enough, where Conrad and Odo hide from Danish raiders sacking their monastery. In plotting how to escape imminent death or, at best, enslavement, Conrad persuades the credulous, trusting Odo that he has a plan, and no matter what it looks like, it’s for the best and hews strictly to Christian principles. As a consequence, though Odo has moments of doubt, he generally construes Conrad’s most craven acts as noble self-sacrifice, berating himself for not having done as well or for not having realized their true significance. Conrad, he believes, is a paragon of Christian virtue. This is often hilarious, and no matter how many times Conrad lies, appears to ally himself with the Danish invaders, or conspires to enrich himself at others’ expense, Odo sticks by him.

In less inventive hands, Conrad Monk could have been a one-joke story, growing tiresome quickly. Not here. Albert has created a protagonist infinitely skilled at falsehood, flattery, skulduggery, and shameless self-aggrandizement, who cheerfully admits to himself, nay, revels, in his character. And he needs to be that slippery, because “no-and furthermore” happens every other page. How does he escape the Danish warriors approaching the pigsty? Or the mad Saxon king who insists on dying a religious martyr, with Conrad alongside? I won’t tell you — and don’t read the jacket flap — but trust me, these evasions, like many others to follow, are ingenious.

The flap also pretends that Conrad Monk offers a “highly informative trip through the Anglo-Saxon world,” “painstakingly accurate depictions of history,” and “character-driven fiction.” I think even Conrad would blush at those claims. Albert has researched his ground thoroughly — no argument, there — and his descriptions, like the following of a feast, are very evocative:

But of course it dragged on and on, as these things do, with maudlin warriors staring into their cups and telling tearful tales of comrades lost and battles won, while the king’s scop went from telling the tale of Edmund’s heroic forebears through songs of war and dragon-haunted peace to drunken riddles and, finally, blessed incoherence, as his fingers missed the strings of the lyre and his tongue fought a losing battle with his ale-addled wits; he sank into a snoring heap by the fire, a sleep from which not even a volley of thrown bones could wake him.

But come on. Conrad Monk is about as plot-driven as it gets, and nobody will read it to learn about Anglo-Saxon culture, very little of which emerges in its pages anyway. Albert explains that he’s tried to follow historical sources when possible, and that’s commendable. But Conrad’s voice sounds indelibly modern, which is part of the fun, and if you ever ask, “Could his exploits really happen?,” you’re missing the point. Conrad Monk is a funny book. Humor as a theme or approach needs no defense, and dressing it up as something more serious only undermines the joke.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Mean Streets: The Devil’s Half Mile


, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Devil’s Half Mile, by Paddy Hirsch
Forge, 2018. 300 pp. $25

Justice (Justy) Flanagan, attorney at law, has returned to the Manhattan of his youth from Ireland, following his legal training and participation in the failed rebellion of 1798. He’s come to make his way in the world and to investigate his father’s suicide. But Justy, who found the body hanging from the rafters, has since learned more than most people care to hear about what violent death looks like, and the precise details he remembers from cutting his father down don’t square with his lessons in what we would call forensics. Moreover, given that his father was involved in an extremely risky financial speculation involving men far less scrupulous than himself, Justy reasonably concludes that motives for killing him abounded, as do suspects.

African Burial Ground, late 1700s, just north of Wall Street, Manhattan (courtesy preserveamerica.gov via Wikimedia Commons)

But Hirsch’s Manhattan in 1799 is a mucky, filthy place, and he’s not just talking about the condition of the streets. The language, Irish-American slang that fills a four-page glossary at the back, is pretty raw too. The title refers to Wall Street, a savage entity with no rules save caveat emptor, and where tempers are short, and memories, long. The stock exchange per se doesn’t exist yet, but trading happens in coffee houses, and a new one has risen specifically for that purpose. Hirsch wants you to read this portrayal, full of rich ruffians who detest even the thought of regulation (despite the Ponzi scheme that set off a catastrophic panic in 1792), so that you realize that little has changed.

This is where Hirsch excels. I find his portrayal of the city the most persuasive, gripping part of The Devil’s Half Mile. Whether depicting the racial tension between free blacks and Irish immigrants, the cut-and-thrust of corrupt finance, the gangs that act like private armies, the prostitution, common thievery, and violence that afflict all but the fortunate few, the squalor in which most people live, or the tiny enclaves of great wealth, the novel gives you New York in its gritty self:

Justy nodded farewell to his friend… He pushed his face into the gust of wind that carried the smell of the city down the hill to the docks. Woodsmoke from a thousand hearth fires, urine from the tanners’ shops, horse shit from the streets, sewage from the septic tanks, fresh blood from the abattoirs, rotting meat and produce from the tips. Bad breath, sour beer, raw spirits, stale sweat. It was like a pungent cloud rolling down the Broad Way to the water, a slap in the face of every newcomer who arrived in the city.
Justy smiled.
It was the smell of home.

Despite this vividness, however, the narrative of The Devil’s Half Mile has a mechanical feel that intrudes, though it’s not for want of plot points. There are plenty of twists and turns, right up to the end. Hirsch has apparently followed Raymond Chandler’s dictum that to restore flagging tension, send in a man with a gun. In this case, it’s more likely a corpse discovered or a knife fight, which gets predictable after a while. Even at that, Hirsch’s machinery might not matter, except that our hero, despite his powers of observation, remains remarkably dense about the obvious, such as the probable killers, the nature of the speculation that his father was involved in, or the mastermind behind all his troubles. Is it that he has to remain clueless until enough bodies fall? To his credit, Hirsch does the fight scenes well and is not squeamish about granting them their proper length, so if they’re a device, they’re a carefully polished one. However, like the grisly findings the sleuthing unearths, the spilling of blood requires emotional transitions from Justy — surprise, horror, the pain of treachery, or what have you — which zip past in clichéd language. His gut clenches, or his fist, a phrase announces that he has “raw feelings,” and the narrative moves on.

As such, Justy comes across as more shallow than he should, which is a shame. Hirsch tries to convey the depth to which violent fury possesses his protagonist, and how Justy’s physical skills may be useful in surviving, but not for living a satisfying life. It’s a worthy theme, especially when the author is after even bigger game; he wishes to connect the skill for violence with English prejudice against the Irish as savages fit only for doing dirty deeds or slaving at the docks. In that, The Devil’s Half Mile is a more ambitious book than it seems at first; but unfortunately, it never realizes its potential.

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