Mean Streets: The Devil’s Half Mile


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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 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.

Our National Shame: The Mercy Seat


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Review: The Mercy Seat, by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
Grove, 2018. 254 pp. $26

When the clock strikes twelve one steamy midnight in 1943, New Iberia, Louisiana, will send one of its sons to the electric chair. Willie Jones, an African-American teenager, has been convicted of raping a white woman. But whether young Willie deserves to die for this crime — or, in some minds, whether there was rape involved — divides this small, rural community to the point of violence.

Replica of the electric chair once used at Louisiana State Penitentiary (courtesy Lee Honeycutt via Wikimedia Commons)

Winthrop’s tale evokes To Kill a Mockingbird, of course, but she follows a very different, necessarily compressed route, for the action takes place entirely within twelve hours. The trial is eight months gone, ancient history, so there’s no Atticus Finch to plead for Willie’s life. Rather, his court-appointed lawyers, who never appear in the narrative, hardly opened their mouths to defend him. There is a child narrator, a sort of moral chorus role, the district attorney’s son, Gabe. But he’s one of nine third-person voices telling the story, seven white and two black. All are sympathetic to Willie, in varying degrees and for very different reasons, yet nearly all believe that there’s absolutely nothing they can do or could have done differently. No matter what their station in life, well off, scraping by, or dirt poor, they have one thing in common — they are terribly lonely, and their feelings about the forthcoming execution, which can’t be easily expressed, show just how isolated they are.

The great genius of The Mercy Seat is how Winthrop extracts almost unbearable tension from voices reacting to events that have been ordained, a Greek tragedy about modest lives. Although she reveals slivers of back story that challenge the reader’s assumptions, information isn’t what propels the narrative with such irresistible force. It’s feeling, pure and simple, rendered in physical description, as with this passage from Gabe’s point of view. This kind of writing takes my breath away:

He looks at his father — the lines bleeding back from the corner of his eyes, the hard bone of his nose, the flat space between his eyes, the quiver of muscle along his jaw as he chews — and for a frightening moment Gabe can’t find in all those features the father he knows. He can’t see the man in the backyard, shirtsleeves rolled up, pitching him a ball, or the man with the fishing rod and tan hat at the edge of the bayou, or the man sitting on the edge of Gabe’s bed at night, reading glasses on the tip of his nose. For a frightening moment, studied hard, his father’s features combine into the face of someone he can’t recognize, someone willing to send a man to death, and he feels himself reel the way he did when he took the slug from the Kane twins’ father’s flask, the world suddenly shot into the distance.

Every character in the novel lives with an urgent question, the necessity for all fiction, and that’s what provides the tension. Gabe’s question is whether he can still love the man who’s prosecuted Willie and sent him to the electric chair. And because the reader cares about both characters, you want to know how that will resolve. The Mercy Seat reminds me that heroism may be measured in small gestures, because there’s no chance of a great one.

The passage above comes from a two-page chapter, an authorial decision that cuts two ways. I don’t know how else Winthrop could have told her story through nine, well-crafted individual voices, especially with such thrift and elegiac power. Nor do I ever feel, as I have with other novels told in brief chapters, that the writer is pandering to readers with short attention spans. Still, the rhythm of rapidly changing perspectives gets to me after a while. I’ve never been much for pointillism, though the way Winthrop has selected her dots accomplishes one thing. Six of the seven white narrators wouldn’t call themselves bigots, and you sense their fear of the bitter, violent men who are.

With one significant exception, The Mercy Seat re-creates the time and place in ugly, frightening detail, down to the eagerness of the citizenry to witness the execution or listen to it on the radio (!). But World War II is hardly to be seen, except to provide an emotional transition for two characters. There’s little mention of rationing, though a bakery figures in the action, and there seem to be an awful lot of military-age civilians around.

But that’s a quibble. The Mercy Seat — which takes its title from a blues song about the electric chair — is easily one of the most powerful novels I’ve read this year. And I’m sick at heart to think of how the senseless hatred that condemns Willie Jones remains powerful enough in our country that politicians can appeal to it and hold public office.

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

The Bad Penny: Friends and Traitors


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Review: Friends and Traitors, by John Lawton
Atlantic, 2017. 341 pp. $26

If I were to describe a thriller whose central incident doesn’t happen until around page 200, and whose back-story-laden narrative revolves around an essentially harmless, flamboyantly foolish turncoat spy, you would likely decide that the book was a plodding, pointless tale, not worth your time.

In this case, though, you’d be wrong. The back story reveals England of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties with remarkable vividness, brio, and wit, focusing on, among other issues, laws and prejudice against homosexual behavior, and the equally prejudiced mindset about national security and how to act in its name. You see these come alive through a compelling protagonist, Frederick Troy, not your ordinary copper. Born to Russian émigrés under the name Troitsky, Troy, as even his girlfriends call him, walked away from a scholarship to Oxford to join the London police force and serve in the East End, a tough patch. Recruited to Scotland Yard above more experienced candidates in the late 1930s, he has been solving murders ever since, up until 1958, when the forward action of Friends and Traitors begins. Like many fictional detectives, he sails very close to the wind, and unscrupulous, vicious characters have a way of disappearing when he’s around, whether they belong to the police force or the criminals. So far, he has covered his tracks, but not without attracting suspicion.

Henry_Labouchère, the British parliamentarian whose amendment to an 1885 law intended to combat prostitution made “gross indecency” between males a criminal act. During the 1940s and 1950s especially, the police went out of their way to enforce it.

What threatens to undo Troy at this juncture is his friendship with Guy Burgess, later known as a member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring; but, as this portrayal would have it, Burgess is very much a junior partner in that game. Still, when he defects with Donald Maclean in 1951, their flight embarrasses and surprises the British intelligence community and causes a rift with its American counterparts. Troy, who has known Burgess for decades, first through family connections, and later because the man keeps crossing his path like a bad penny, has always been suspect for this association. But Troy thinks that what MI5 and Special Branch really object to, aside from shame at their own lapse, is Burgess’s unapologetic, open homosexuality, which to Troy shouldn’t be considered a crime.

Moreover, Burgess’s inability to keep a secret, and the relatively short time he was working for the Foreign Office, suggest he’s not much of a threat. Self-absorbed, boorish, insulting, and vain, yes; but since when are those qualities treasonous? Nevertheless, when Burgess lets it be known in 1958 that he wishes to return to England, several people whom both he and Troy know wind up dead, and others are running scared, including at least one former lover of Troy’s.

From there, the pieces that Lawton has laid in place with seeming casualness turn out to matter in ingenious, unexpected ways, so cleverly that not even Troy understands the depth of his troubles before they arrive. The sentence, “Someone was following Troy,” recurs constantly. For a man of his experience, that’s almost an insult. And since he never takes his medicine quietly, he leads his watchdogs in Special Branch up hill and down dale, at one point leaving a Lewis Carroll poem in a tree for them to puzzle over. Very snarky. But what else would you expect from the youngest child with two twin sisters named Sasha and Masha, each of whom has a particular brand of acting badly, and an oh-so-righteous older brother, Battle of Britain hero, member of Parliament, and all that, who may be prime minister one day? It’s always been Troy’s job to be different in a family of individualists, and he does so with a sharp sense of humor.

Then there’s the prose, which evokes myriad times and places, as with this description of the London Blitz:

It seemed to Troy that the night sky was short on sky’s own colour — blue. Reds it had aplenty, from the bright, post-office-van scarlet of the flames that leapt heavenward from burning buildings to the colouring-book-and-wax-crayon carmine of tracers and the paintbox burnt orange of ack-ack shells popping uselessly among the beaten-metal pewter hue of the barrage balloons. Incendiaries burnt white to silver, and the searchlights sliced up the night with long fingers of pure, clear light. Rarely had he seen a plane hit, either ours or theirs, but when it happened every colour in the rainbow might burst forth.

My only quibble is Burgess himself, who’s so unappealing that if I were Troy, I’d run in the other direction. At times Troy does, yet he also seems fascinated, and I’m not sure why. Burgess’s willingness to say what no one else will? Troy’s stubborn refusal to shun a man whom his conventional older brother has warned him about? Hard to know, but I still recommend Friends and Traitors.

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

Lacking Compulsion: West


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Review: West, by Carys Davies
Scribner, 2018. 149 pp. $22

Sometime around 1817, John Cyrus Bellman, an English immigrant to central Pennsylvania, reads about old bones discovered in Kentucky, perhaps belonging to an ancient, unknown animal. Bellman has never heard the like, and he’s immediately transfixed. What kind of creature could it be? Why didn’t Captains Lewis and Clark happen on them during their explorations? Wouldn’t it be a fine thing if he, Bellman, saw these creatures and brought back news of the discovery? So he leaves his motherless eleven-year-old daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, Julie, and heads west, alone, figuring to follow Lewis and Clark’s footsteps.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, merged public-domain images (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a grand scheme, about dreams and dreamers, beautiful in its simplicity. Is Bellman an irresponsible lunatic, as his sister thinks, burdening her with the care of a young girl who barely knew her late mother? But Bess herself, though she loves her father dearly and will miss him, believes in her heart that he’ll find the creatures he’s looking for and return to her. Bess is a dreamer herself, a solitary, sensitive child who wishes she could go to school. You sense that she has wider horizons than the few people she comes in contact with, and that she embodies her father’s spirit.

Davies, a short-story writer of note, spares few words. Her opening chapters offer a primer on how to draw the reader’s attention and allegiance. She creates tension in small moments, using simple words to convey her characters’ thoughts, as with Bellman’s, when he contemplates making his journey:

He cooked, and occasionally he cleaned, and made sure Bess had a pair of shoes on her feet, but he was silent the whole time and sometimes his eyes turned glassy and he would not let Bess come near him. The giant beasts drifted across his mind like the vast creature-shaped clouds he saw when he stood in the yard behind the house and tipped his head up to the sky. When he closed his eyes, they moved behind the lids in the darkness, slowly, silently, as if through water — they walked and they drifted, pictures continually blooming in his imagination and then vanishing into the blackness beyond, where he could not grasp them. . .

But as a novel, West doesn’t work. In fact, I have a hard time calling it a novel, and not only because its 149 pages appear as sparsely populated in sentences as early nineteenth-century Kentucky was in people. The chapters are necessarily brief bits, and though Davies’s skill at creating broad impressions from tiny details would make Chekhov nod in appreciation, the episodes barely skim the surface.

Only one paragraph, a third of the way through, gives a hint of why Bellman has this dream. But even that little is already more than the narrative suggests about Bess’s yearnings. What does she want an education for? What does she think of Lewistown, the nearest settlement, aside from the church she’s made to attend, whose services she finds empty? And what of Julie — what’s her story? What does she want, and why did she emigrate?

There’s simply not enough inner life in West to go around, which makes it all the more difficult to believe the arresting premise. Because yes, Bellman’s idea is lunacy, so much so that it’s utterly implausible. Bellman must realize, at least in part, that Lewis and Clark were more knowledgeable and better equipped than he, yet he charges ahead, with little thought of Bess or Julie. It’s also a head-scratcher why, if the creatures were sighted in Kentucky, he thinks to go a thousand miles or more past that; but never mind.

All the more reason, then, for the narrative to focus on his motives. Is he drawn by the youth and promise of the still-new country, of travelers’ reports of natural beauty, or an extension of whatever it was that led him to cross the Atlantic? West is mum about all that. Well, then, does he have a philosophical or scientific interest in possibly extinct creatures? Nope. His attraction is just mythic, and I sense that we’re supposed to accept it on the author’s say-so.

But how? Davies is so tight-fisted with details of scenery or geography — for a novel that attempts sweep, its camera eye feels devoted to close-ups — that the grandeur and scope of the country seldom come across. Such strong novels as The Landbreakers, The Way West, or News of the World succeed, in part, because they convey all that and more. From those narratives you can see how frontier America was a wild, dangerous place, and no intelligent person would have jeopardized himself or his young daughter so carelessly, unless he had the most compelling urge.

It’s that compulsion, or lack of it, that undoes West.

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

Little Love, Lots of Squalor: The Magnificent Esme Wells


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Review: The Magnificent Esme Wells, by Adrienne Sharp
HarperCollins, 2018. 335 pp. $27

When Esme Silver is twelve, in 1945, her family moves to Las Vegas to work for Bugsy Siegel, the infamous mobster, who’s trying to build a casino and has gotten over his head in debt. You can guess that the Silvers, Ike and Dina, have blithely gone swimming in shark-infested waters, but as you quickly discover, they’ve been doing that ever since Ike got Dina pregnant when she was sixteen.

Their daughter has an inkling of what she’s inherited; the only thing she doesn’t know is how much she’ll suffer for it. As a six-year-old, Esme accompanies Ike to the racetracks of Los Angeles, watches him strut, lose his stake, and then fight with her mother, whose wedding ring he has likely pawned. Or else the little girl joins Dina at the Hollywood movie lots she frequents to grub for chorus-line roles in B pictures. The biggest difference between Ike and Dina is that Ike never blames her for his setbacks—let’s not call them failures — whereas Dina’s resentment simmers just below the surface. If it weren’t for Esme, she thinks, she’d be a star.

And Esme’s penance is heavy indeed. Ike feeds her, sort of, when he has charge of her, but Dina seldom bothers. The little girl wears her mother’s clothing, never gets her hair combed, and rarely bathes. Nor do the Silvers send her to school, but the sort of education she receives is one of a kind–playing her part in the lie Dina tells at the movie lots, that Esme is her little sister, or at the racetrack, scrounging for winning tickets that might have been dropped.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s mug shot, 1928 (courtesy New York City Police Department via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, venal, mob-ruled Las Vegas, though bad for Ike and Dina, is absolute poison for their daughter, particularly once she enters her teenage years and shows she’s inherited her mother’s beauty. Since Dina has always told her that a woman’s face is her fortune, you know that Esme is about to prove it, and with the worst guy possible.

What a dark coming-of-age story, and though Esme is a marvelous narrator — astute, witty, with more than her share of courage—she’s in great pain. I cringed to read about an abused, neglected child who becomes an exploited woman. Nevertheless, she never asks for sympathy, and her clear-eyed honesty compels my allegiance: She admits that she doesn’t act purely from necessity. She enjoys the risk, the reward, and the adulation, and as such, she recognizes her parents in herself.

Sharp’s descriptions, which infuse settings with deep feeling, offer a primer on novel writing. She re-creates Los Angeles and Las Vegas as though she had a camera. You can practically smell the hair oil on the gangsters, and you stand in the casinos with chips in your hand. But the best part is how she reveals both ambience and character. This passage, for instance, shows Ike at the racetrack:

When my father was winning, riding a good streak, every one of his picks coming in big, he would stroll the track, and with each step he took at the turnstile, the paddock, the Study Hall, the grandstands, men called out to him, “How you doing, Ike,” came up to shake his hand, asking who he liked in the fourth or the fifth or the sixth. But when he wasn’t winning, he hunkered down in the back corner of the Study Hall on the bottom level, the concourse, like a delinquent student serving detention. He smoked his cigarettes at his table overflowing with racing sheets, made desperate notes with his worn-down stub of a pencil in his lucky red notebook, always the same kind, which was always fat with money in the morning and by the end of a bad day, thin with nothing but its own lined leaves of paper.

For better and worse, Sharp seals off Esme and her parents in a bubble, with every surface and reflection lovingly rendered. You can understand the temptation, because Esme witnesses scenes she’d otherwise never see, but it’s not always credible. Why doesn’t anyone ever notice that a six-year-old girl isn’t in school? That the Silvers move every few months, and that they don’t want officialdom to know their circumstances, may explain Esme’s truancy, but not how they get away with it. There’s an awful lot of lawbreaking in this story, but no police.

Grand events pose another problem. Sure, Dina and Ike are self-absorbed, but even World War II doesn’t seem to touch them and is barely mentioned, while nobody talks about the Great Depression at all. Despite their Jewishness, which might have pointed them toward events in Europe, anti-Semitism evades their notice until Mickey Cohen, one of the Jewish mob they work for, takes matters in hand. With such an eye for small detail, Sharp could have painted the larger picture, I think, without getting lost in it.

All the same, The Magnificent Esme Wells is a powerful, bold novel, and I recommend it.

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

Pioneer Abolitionists: The Invention of Wings


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Review: The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, 2014. 373 pp. $28

On Sarah Grimké’s eleventh birthday in 1803, her mother, Mary, “promotes” her from the nursery to a bedroom, a welcome, long-awaited change. Sarah’s tangible birthday gift displeases her immensely, however — a slave girl named Hetty, a.k.a. Handful, slightly younger than herself, to be her maid. Sarah’s oldest memory, from age four, which still terrifies her, is of watching one slave whip another on her mother’s orders. The brutality and injustice, driven home by Mary Grimké’s obdurate character — she’s a nasty piece of work — mold young Sarah into an abolitionist. That’s quite a turn for the daughter of a planter aristocrat judge in Charleston, South Carolina, and when Mary calls her “different,” it’s not a compliment.

Wood engraving of Sarah Moore Grimké, date unknown, presumably during her lifetime (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah has no friends or confidantes, and her only allies in her family prove treacherous. Given her longings and principles, she turns to Handful, attempting to free her, sharing secrets and teaching her to read and write (against the law, of course). Handful, however, remains largely unimpressed, seeing her unwilling mistress as a representative of the system.

The Invention of Wings is a superbly imaginative, engrossing novel that occupies difficult terrain, and I applaud the author’s effort and intentions and much of the execution. Still, I wonder about the portrayal of the key relationship, which throws the novel off its footing. From her life as a slave and her own social isolation, Handful would likely recognize the loneliness in the plain, socially awkward Sarah, who struggles with a stammer, and who’s crushed whenever she objects, protests, or simply expresses her individual viewpoint. To be sure, Sarah would never be whipped, may read and write without fear of punishment, eat whatever she wants, need not labor, and at least may protest openly, for what little good it does.

All the same, I think Handful would have come across more completely had she wrestled with two opposing instincts: to go further toward accepting Sarah’s friendship in the spirit it’s offered, warily, while also resenting her like hell. Kidd takes pains to show how Handful’s mother, Charlotte, instills in her the urge to resist, so we’re meant to think her rebellion is earned. Yet her attitudes seem so fully formed and coherent, I kept thinking she anticipates 1960s radicals by a century and a half. Is that implausible? I’m not sure. The Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), were famous radicals of their day, pamphleteers and lecturers for abolition and feminism. Unlike the vast majority of abolitionists, Sarah campaigned not just for ending slavery but for racial equality. So why can’t Handful offer a counterpart?

Maybe it’s because the voices don’t feel quite right. Like Handful’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, Sarah’s righteousness rings hollow after a while. I want her to put two and two together and realize, at least dimly, that her financial and social privilege derives entirely from a system she detests, and that when she dresses up to go to a ball, what she’s wearing on her back has come from beatings, repression, and the cruelest kind of exploitation. Otherwise, how could her hatred of slavery be so certain? I also want the two main characters to tangle over what separates them; instead, they have a few unsettling exchanges and withdraw from one another to the extent that they can.

Despite these flaws, Kidd’s narrative makes an excellent story, and The Invention of Wings re-creates the antebellum South in its mesmerizing, ugly panoply. Her prose feels effortless, never calling attention to itself, with carefully chosen, lucid images inducing a mood. Sarah sees bare tree limbs “spread open like the viscera of a parasol,” or herself betrayed as “the collared monkey dancing to his master’s accordion.” Handful pictures God as a white man, “bearing a stick like missus or going round dodging slaves the way master Grimké did, acting like he’d sired a world where they don’t exist.”

I like how Kidd takes a real-life abolitionist and feminist pioneer and shows you how she came to be. In fact, the feminist thread feels more nuanced and sure-handed to me, evolving rather than springing nearly full-blown into life. Giving the elder Grimké sister a foil in Handful is a bold move, even if their relationship wants more fleshing out, more controversy.

The Invention of Wings is a brave book; perhaps a little more bravery would have made it even better.

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

A Full Life in a Small Room: The Anchoress


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Review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader
FSG, 2015. 310 pp. $26

It’s 1255 in Hortham, Gloucestershire, and seventeen-year-old Sarah takes a vow to live a solitary life of penitence and prayer. She is to pray for Sir Thomas Maunsell, the lord who has granted her the living; the churchmen; and the villagers. Only women may look at her — her maids, and any women or girls who seek her counsel — and the only man who may speak to her is her confessor, Father Peter, who must do so with a curtain separating them.

What a simple premise, so simple that some readers might suppose that The Anchoress consists of interior monologues that pale by page 50. On the contrary. This gorgeous, utterly compelling novel proves, once again, that tension resides not in plot points but the conflict between an inner life and everything else. And here, everything else is plenty, starting with Sarah’s motives in renouncing the world.

A sign marking the cell of a fourteenth-century anchoress of Shere, Surrey (courtesy Suzanne Knights, Wikimedia Commons)

At first, you know only that she believes firmly in God and church teachings, and likens her vocation to an acrobat she once saw, who risked himself flying through the air, and whom she has privately nicknamed Swallow. She imagines her isolation as a risk too, rather than escape. That’s Sarah’s independent spirit showing — yes, even within the strict confines of prayer and meditation, she roams a world no one else dreams of. Of course, there’s more to her decision than faith or fancy. Add her merchant father’s desire to marry her off for commercial advantage, her sister’s death in childbirth, and a dash of teenage cussedness, and you see that Hortham’s new anchoress is no retiring maiden content to nod her pretty head to those who purport to know better.

To no surprise, Sarah’s story quickly becomes one of justice, questioning authority (divine or temporal), the nature of sin and whether women are to blame for it, and the lord’s rights over his vassals. Does Cadwallader push the boundaries of modernity a little? Maybe; at times these thirteenth-century folk seem to reason from a mindset of a later era. Yet Sarah’s emotional and intellectual growth feels completely plausible — this novel, among other things, is a coming-of-age story — and the transitions are never easy. For all that plausibility, however, Sarah’s native intelligence should have prepared her for at least one surprise that the reader figures out long before she does, but that’s a rare slip-up in an otherwise seamless narrative.

You’d expect that a person enclosed in a tiny space would have an intensely physical existence, and that’s true from the start:

I walked the length of myself in the wall with two windows to my altar, counting my steps — nine paces; that across the narrower side, from my fireplace to my squint — seven paces. This would be my world. I touched the squint, a thin window about the length of my two hands from fingertips to heel and as wide as my wrist. I knelt and looked through. It was so narrow and cut on such a sharp angle in the thick church wall that I could see only the church’s altar, its two lighted candles, and the crucifix above.

The strength of The Anchoress is how Cadwallader carries the physical throughout, in concrete, evocative language, using small moments to full effect. The nails that seal Sarah’s outer door represent, to her, the Crucifixion. She begins to see faces in the uneven surfaces of the stone wall surrounding her and imagines the two anchoresses who preceded her, hearing their voices. Images reappear, as with the juggler who made such an impression on her, and with birds that nest on her roof (birds, as symbols of innocence and freedom, matter here). These metaphors slide gently in and out of the narrative, so subtly rendered I had to remind myself that The Anchoress is a first novel.

Sarah expects that abstention from ordinary life will release her from sensations, desires, and anything earthbound. How wrong she is. A glimpse of sunlight, the nestling of the cat who insists on adopting her, the voices of the women who visit (as well as what they say) affect Sarah all the more profoundly for being unusual to her. Her scope may be a tiny sphere, but it’s jam-packed. As her second confessor, Father Ranaulf (who narrates part of the story) observes in a different context, “A woman sealed in a cell, that was all. How could it become so complicated?”

Complicated, indeed, and with an ending perhaps a bit too neat. But spinning the straw of slight circumstance into narrative gold is the novelist’s art, and The Anchoress is one of the best examples I’ve read in a while.

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

Colonial Thinking: The Moment Before Drowning


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Review: The Moment Before Drowning, by James Brydon
Akashic, 2018. 224 pp. $26

When Captain Jacques le Garrec returns to his native Brittany in December 1959, his arrival creates a stir, as a former Resistance hero and police detective, a local boy who made good. But the wrong kind of notoriety trails him too, because he’s been brought back to France to face accusations regarding his interrogations of suspected terrorists in the colonial war in Algeria. In the days preceding his legal hearing, a local lycée teacher has asked him to investigate the death and mutilation of a brilliant girl, a student of his. This is a distraction for le Garrec, to be sure, but that’s what he needs.

It’s a small town, where everybody knows everything about everyone else, or thinks they do, so it’s somewhat surprising that the police haven’t solved the crime. However, they haven’t tried hard, a mystery in itself. Another puzzle is why le Garrec has returned in apparent disgrace. Did he torture one too many civilians, and is that really considered a crime by the French forces pursuing this increasingly savage, unwinnable war? Or is his crime something different?

Brydon handles both narratives with skill and an elegant simplicity I admire. The whodunit part, the standard, expected tale, remains tense to the end, though the number of suspects is small, and the evidence is in plain sight. But the greater pleasure of this fine debut novel derives from the parallel narratives of the torture cells in Algeria and the murder investigation, a terrific juxtaposition that asks what purpose law and its enforcement actually serve. And that’s why le Garrec’s in trouble, because he dared pose that question in Algeria.

Consequently, the conflict occurs in le Garrec’s head, as his memories of Algeria deny him sleep, and in his investigation. Not only does the dead Breton girl recall a young woman he interrogated (the event prompting the charges against him); the police inspector, a brutal bigot, reminds him of his superior in Algeria. Lafourgue, the inspector, is a well-drawn character, and as a petty ego inflated with barely repressed rage and unsatisfied desire, he makes a good foil for le Garrec. The contempt that Lafourgue expresses for the murder victim shocks le Garrec and perhaps explains why the inspector has felt no particular urgency to find the killer. But Brydon’s accomplishing much more than thematic development here. He’s linked his protagonist’s inner and outer journeys, a winning combination every time, if done right.

And Brydon does a lot right, starting with the vivid prose:

As I walk from the bus stop along familiar, deserted streets the sky seems enormous, bloated, and infinite, billowing over everything. I lose myself in swirls of gray; great, bulbous streaks of darkness; every possible permutation of impending rain. After two years in Algeria I feel the Breton damp seeping into my body, chilling me, and the ice carried on the wind settling in my blood. Out by the sea, which I can perceive only as a howl frustrated by the rocks, the beam of the lighthouse flashes its warning into the encroaching dark: a fragile blade of light that swings away and is lost, only to return each time and abide in the blindness of the night.

Where he goes wrong, I think, is to rush. Sometimes, the characters don’t speak so much as they expound, which sounds canned, intended to reveal essential information or a person’s trait in a single passage. I notice this especially in the beginning and whenever le Garrec interviews witnesses for the first time. What’s the hurry? Engage the reader emotionally, and you can write at Tolstoyan length. What creates tension isn’t information about le Garrec but who and what he loves, his feelings about himself and his situation, his struggle to redeem himself. Brydon conveys that, of course; if he didn’t, his novel could be half the size it is, yet not work. It seems like a lack of trust (or poor editorial advice) that has led him to sprint through emotional changes as if the words were on fire, which then requires him to move on to what comes next to put it out. But those are actually the moments in which the reader wants to insert him- or herself into the narrative and ask what he or she would do under the same circumstances. End that connection abruptly, and the novelist breaks the mood, yanking the reader out of the narrative.

Nevertheless, I think that The Moment Before Drowning is well worth reading (with the caveat that there are many scenes of torture, so be warned). I look forward to seeing what the author can do once he gains more confidence in his readers and, perhaps, himself.

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.

Racetrack Mayhem: A Stone’s Throw


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Review: A Stone’s Throw, by James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street/Prometheus, 2018. 295 pp. $16

Ellie Stone, the heroine sleuth of this engaging, clever mystery, is a reporter for an upstate New York newspaper. It’s August 1962, height of the racing season in nearby Saratoga Springs, when Ellie happens on a fire at the abandoned Tempesta Farm, once a quality breeding place for Thoroughbreds. A barn has burned, which should have no particular significance, since it’s been years since Tempesta operated. However, Ellie finds human remains in the ashes and a bit of racing silk that suggests the victim was a jockey. A bullet hole through the head confirms that it’s murder, which leads the police to suspect gamblers as the criminals.

Ellie isn’t so sure, and, as is her wont, she pursues the case from every conceivable angle, like any good reporter; for about a week, she seems never to get any sleep. Knowing nothing about racing, she relies on a good friend to teach her, whereupon she drops the nuggets she’s learned into conversations with gamblers, horsemen, and racetrack swells, often with comic results. Ellie befriends a beautiful, temperamental horse named Purgatorio, and crosses paths with hoods who have no beauty but plenty of temperament. Her allies in the police department worry about her, especially the closer she gets to the truth, and the more heat that results.

Ziskin tells his story with brisk economy, and despite a large cast of characters, he never loses you. That should be a given, but I’ve read many mysteries in which I’ve had to stop and say, “What just happened, exactly?” Yet the clarity never reveals too much, and the solution to the mystery comes as a complete surprise — another quality that eludes some authors.

The prose is nicely seasoned without being cute or cloying, and that helps too:

With all the grace of a punch-drunk prizefighter stumbling to his feet on the count of nine, the coroner pushed himself up off the muddy ground with both arms and a couple of grunts. Vertical once more, he coughed himself red in the face. After several restorative breaths, he wiped his hands on a cloth, which he tossed aside like a soiled tissue. Someone else would clean it up. Or maybe not. In no hurry to answer my question, he retrieved an Old Gold from a crumpled package in the breast pocket of his jacket, flicked his lighter, and puffed smoke into the air.

As for historical flavor, I would have liked more than random details of dress, popular music, or news headlines. To his credit, though, Ziskin involves social issues hovering on the mainstream horizon in 1962. I particularly like how he handles the office politics, which conveys both background and contrast. Ellie has an assistant, an older woman with a developmentally disabled child, who does a lot of the spade work, for little money and no recognition, except from Ellie. The younger woman, educated at Barnard and blessed with the more glamorous, better-paying job, realizes how unfair this is.

However, her status cuts two ways, for Ellie endures the sobriquet of “girl reporter,” symbolic of the hostility she faces on her beat and in the newsroom. Ellie never describes herself physically in her narration, but you get the idea that she’s very attractive, often more of a hindrance than an advantage. When an old-timer at the paper makes a remark about her derrière, she photographs his and posts the prints where other staffers can laugh at them. But it’s not all fun and games, for Ellie faces constant sexual harassment, and she fights an uphill battle to be taken seriously. Luckily, her editor believes in her reportorial skills— but nevertheless, she depends upon a man’s good graces.

Also, Ellie’s Jewish, and Ziskin does a fine job portraying the shades of anti-Semitism she encounters, whether from the Saratoga blue-bloods or the underworld types. The blue-bloods also have no idea how racist they are toward African-Americans, even as they raise money to aid poor black schoolchildren. Properly, Ziskin never mentions the national movements or leaders campaigning for women’s rights or against racial and ethnic prejudice, a low-key approach that avoids earnestness or exaggerated significance.

These are some of the pleasures of A Stone’s Throw, an excellent, satisfying mystery. Even readers who don’t remember the early Sixties will enjoy it.

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

Some Enchanted Evening: The Invitation


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Review: The Invitation, by Lucy Foley
Little, Brown, 2016. 426 pp. $26

Hal Jacobs, a struggling English ex-pat journalist in Rome, crashes a soirée given by a contessa, the first time he has been social in months. It’s 1953, close enough to the world war so that the city and its inhabitants still bear wounds, Hal included. By the evening’s end, however, he’s charmed the contessa — who knows perfectly well he wasn’t invited — and a mysterious, beautiful woman who, in their moment of mutual vulnerability, hints at the scars she does her best to hide. Their brief tryst leaves such a deep impression on Hal that he believes he’s experienced the only warmth and happiness of his life — or has he simply loaded the circumstances with more emotional freight than they can bear?

Remains of the Roman Forum, 2012 (courtesy Bert Kaufmann, Roermond, Netherlands, via Wikimedia Commons)

Months later, however, he sees the woman again. The contessa has managed to fund the film she was trying to produce — that had been the soirée’s purpose, to assemble angels who might invest in it — and because Hal knows the cinema, she engages him to write a magazine story about it, an assignment he gets through her contacts. The stars, director, and others associated with the film will revisit the coastal location where it was shot, and Hal is to pen glitzy, frothy nonsense about this gathering as publicity for the release. Since much of the money to make the film comes from Frank Truss, he’s there with his young wife, Stella — the woman Hal met in Rome.

The invitation to a Mediterranean setting, themes of sexual passion and emotional honesty, and lost souls searching for what they’ve never had reminds me of The Magus, one of John Fowles’s early novels. Another similarity is a parallel narrative, but this one goes back several centuries rather than decades, which Hal reads about in an old diary. But Foley does better than Fowles, I think, in two crucial respects: Her female characters are fully drawn, not merely sex objects, and there’s less literary artifice.

What there is, I could do without — the prologue adds nothing, and I skipped the parallel narrative of the diary. The real action, between Hal and Stella, needs no mirroring or adornment. Foley not only takes love at first sight and makes it credible, she skillfully uncovers layers of past and secret hurts for both principal characters. I’m not sure why Stella’s sections are first-person, whereas Hal’s are in third; does that difference accomplish anything? But two unspoken questions lurk constantly within the narrative, and it’s amazing how much tension they create: What will happen between Hal and Stella, and what will result?

That tension emanates from the characters themselves, much less so the antagonist. Frank Truss lives up to his name as Stella’s sole support, but she pays a heavy price. It’s not so much that Frank likes to get his own way; it’s that when he’s around, there is no other way. He’s menacing enough to serve his narrative necessity, but as a character, he’s too one-sided, the only flawed portrayal in the book. Foley tries to rescue him somewhat at the end, and though I like the shifts in perspective that she creates, they don’t go far enough. You know Frank’s a bad guy from day one, and the pretense he has of altruistic commitment is so obviously pasted on, it’s no surprise when it’s proven a sham.

By contrast, though, Foley does a terrific job with the lesser characters in attendance. I particularly like the film director, Gaspari, a lonely man, humble in his artistic gifts, and the contessa, whose warm-hearted, tolerant approach to life is very appealing. Foley also sets her scenes with care, as with Hal’s crashing the contessa’s soirée:

Torches have been lit in brackets about the entrance, and Hal can see several gleaming motor cars circling like carp, disclosing guests in their evening finery.… He is not prepared for this. His suit is well-made but old and worn with use, faded at the elbows of the jacket and frayed at the pockets of the trousers. He has lost weight, too, since he last wore it, thanks to his poor diet of coffee and the occasional sandwich.… When he first wore it he had been much broader about the chest and shoulders. Now he feels almost like a boy borrowing his father’s clothes.

With prose like this, Foley delivers her keen psychological insights, connecting closely with the reader on every page. The Invitation is well worth reading.

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