Ben Hopkins, book reviews, Carol Edgarian, Eleanor Morse, Esi Edugyan, First World War, historical fiction, Ian McGuire, James McBride, Janet Fitch, Jess Walter, Lisa See, Maggie O'Farrell, P.S. Duffy, Peg Kingman, R. N. Morris, Rivka Galchen
As I do every year at this time, I recap my favorite reviews from the last twelve months of Novelhistorian. This year’s crop includes several that will stay with me a long while.
Start with Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s extraordinarily intimate, subtle portrait of: a courtship and marriage; the gossamer boundary between life and death; the longing for love and connection, despite that; and daily life in Elizabethan England with Shakespeare at the center, though his last name never appears, and most of the narrative belongs to Agnes, his wife. (Yes; Agnes, not Anne.)
Ben Hopkins’s Cathedral tells of thirteenth-century serfs in Alsace buying their freedom and moving to a city where a cathedral is being built. From that singular occurrence emerges a beautifully imagined tale of greed, politics, skullduggery, sex, bigotry, and piety, while the coming Renaissance lurks in the distance. This narrative has zest and fire; a masterpiece.
A coming-of-age novel for both a young girl and her native city, the San Francisco of 1906, Carol Edgarian’s Vera casts an outwardly unsentimental eye on fraught mother-daughter relationships and the all-consuming question of how women can wield power. At the same time, the girl never loses her deep yearnings, possessing a rich inner life at odds with her circumstances. A remarkable duality, there, that few authors can portray so convincingly.
Washington Black, Esi Edugyan’s story of a slave in nineteenth-century Barbados who dares dream of a life he wasn’t born to have, is that rare novel about a victim who expresses no self-pity or bravado, and which conveys every character, even the villains, in their fullness. No earnestness, here, only a protagonist who never stops striving and loving, no matter how many blows he takes.
Unlike any other novel I’ve ever read about the 1960s, Eleanor Morse’s Margreete’s Harbor captures the essence of the decade, that ineffable vibe. The narrative rests on small moments writ large, depicted in gorgeous prose, and which show you characters as deep as the Maine harbor on which they live—contradictory, sometimes cranky, secretive, and altogether real.
The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter, reads like a thriller about labor strife in Spokane, Washington, 1909, enacted by larger-than-life characters. Life’s a fight to the finish, and so much wrong blankets the landscape, you seldom know where right is hiding itself, let alone how to act accordingly. The political and social divisions portrayed here parallel those of the present.
The First World War is my historical specialty, and I’m always on the lookout for authentic novels about the era. Consider, then, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, P.S. Duffy’s moving portrayal of a Canadian infantry officer’s war and the home front he leaves behind. She effortlessly captures the camaraderie of men at war, the search for meaning amid the violence, the tension and release of battle. Even readers who avoid such stories may find much to keep them glued to this one—a debut novel, no less.
The Revolution of Marina M, by Janet Fitch, realizes the Russian atmosphere, be it Petrograd or rural peasantry, with bold, lush strokes and complete authority. Like the Russian novels the author admires, hers goes deeper than a sweeping lens and epic events. You understand what motivates these characters, all of whom have inner lives for the reader to navigate, and the weight of events never feels like a burden, even at 800 pages.
In The White Feather Killer, R. N. Morris excels at characterization, the atmosphere of 1914 London, and the craft of whodunit. So many scenes in his novel start out one way and shoot off unexpectedly in another, the essence of tension, because something touches a nerve in his legion of fragile people. Some readers may find these tortured souls off-putting, but the rewards here are many, not least a soul-searching detective, an unvarnished portrayal of police work, and a similar, gritty depiction of a great metropolis straining at its bounds.
The Great Unknown, Peg Kingman’s philosophical novel about the origins of life, set in 1845 Edinburgh, evokes a country on the brink of moral upending through scientific discovery. It’s also a thought-provoking daily drama playing out chance and consequences, fortunate or tragic, and people trying to figure out whether these outcomes mean anything or merely display the benign indifference of the universe. The usually droll tone delights.
With The Abstainer, Ian McGuire puts a capable, compassionate Irish detective in Manchester, England, in 1867, whose job is to keep tabs on Irish revolutionaries. When our man, who faces bigotry and obstruction from his superiors, hears that a cold assassin has arrived from America to settle scores with the highest and mightiest, staying one step ahead of the killer proves more than merely difficult. The tension in this fine thriller never relents.
A driven narrative of sibling rivalry, Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See, describes that city in 1935, the eve of personal disaster for two sisters, and a greater catastrophe for their country. See writes with the force of gravity, and when the worlds she creates collide, the shock waves are enormous, playing out themes of duty and tradition versus modernity and independence.
A south Brooklyn housing project in 1969 provides a whole world for James McBride in Deacon King Kong. What begins with a shooting turns into a complicated, finely woven story, involving a church, cheese deliveries, storytelling as an art form, racism, unlikely romances, what constitutes good in the face of so much evil, and how humans dare to hope. It’s also a rollicking good time, full of sprawling, delicious sentences with spicy flavor.
Rivka Galchen depicts an eccentric busybody who happens to be Johannes Kepler’s mother in Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, a tale set in the Duchy of Württemberg in 1618. Frau Kepler’s neighbors twist her admittedly cranky behavior into proof she consorts with the devil, which doesn’t stop them from pestering her to get her astronomer son to cast their horoscopes. A brilliant narrative, this, at once chilling and hilarious, as absurdity vies with truth to explain how conspiracy theories take root.
As my regular readers will note, I’ve recapped more books than usual this anniversary. I think that’s because I’ve gotten more selective in what I review or even finish reading. If I start a book and anticipate criticizing flat characters or a contrived narrative, I put the book aside. As a consequence, I wind up praising more books wholeheartedly.
Whether that’s an entirely good thing, I’m not sure. It’s no fun ripping a book apart (and besides, negative reviews take a lot of time to write). But I also don’t want to ignore promising novelists who haven’t found their feet, or stories that deserve a hearing despite their flaws.
It’s a balancing act, and if you have thoughts about it, I’d like to hear them.