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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Reading The Snow Queen, which was published in 2003, made me realise that it really does help if you have a particular interest in the subject matter that is central to a story. I recently wrote that I wasn’t interested in the haute couture described in Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker, and didn’t enjoy the book as much as friends who did have an interest in it. It probably doesn’t work like that for great books, but maybe it does for rather more ordinary books like this one. This time the focus is on ballet and Adelaide, and I’m very interested to read about both these topics. Be warned if you aren’t.

Set in the 1970s, the story is shared by two main characters. Edward Larwood has returned to Adelaide to take charge of the nascent state ballet company, Ballet South, after a successful career as a dancer and choreographer overseas. Galina Koslova is a retired ballerina who trained in Russia and briefly ran her own ballet company as well as a ballet school in Adelaide before marrying and settling down there. Teddy and Galina have unfinished business; she feels he betrayed her when they were younger. She writes and account of her life which includes her view of him; she hopes to turn Adelaide’s arts community against him. From this memoir we learn of her training at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, the impact of the Russian revolution, joining the Ballet Russes, and being stranded in Australia at the outbreak of war. Larwood returned to Adelaide briefly after the war, and danced in her ballet company until their falling-out. The Snow Queen is a ballet created for Galina’s company.

McConnochie is a very competent writer, and she’s been quite clever with Galina’s voice. ‘You think my English is not good enough,’ she says to her husband, who replies ‘you’re not really a word person, are you?’ So it reads realistically that Galina’s memoir is a bit stilted. She is also quite clearly an unreliable narrator; Teddy recollects the same events quite differently, so we know that any truth lies somewhere outside their version of events. Galina and Teddy personify different approaches to ballet, and to life. Galina has fully imbibed the rigorous discipline of the Russian system, where technique is everything; self-expression comes a poor second. ‘Before you ever get to dance, to leap about, to express yourself (there is such an emphasis these days on expressing yourself), you must learn the basics,’ she writes. Teddy, on the other hand, has presence and charisma to cover his dislike of hard work. Galina wants to be the best. Teddy wants to be loved. McConnochie presents a thoughtful psychological picture of the clash that arises when these two world views collide. Can they ever be reconciled?

Combining the present, the memoir, and the characters’ own recollections of the past, makes for a rather untidy story, but I guess it works well enough. There are clunky bits, like Teddy’s relations with his family, which are very two dimensional. A homosexual encounter by the River Torrens is probably only there because of a notorious homosexual drowning in that river in 1972. I think the section dealing with Galina’s company is a bit too sketchy; where, for example, could she possibly have got all those dancers from in Adelaide? It’s true that a number of the Ballet Russes dancers chose to remain in Australia after the outbreak of war, but I doubt there were enough ballet schools of sufficient standing – certainly not in Adelaide – to make up even a part-time company like the one McConnocnie describes. (In fact the history of Galina’s company is rather like that of the Borovansky Ballet Company which began in Melbourne in 1939 as a part-time company and grew into the major ballet company in Australia before its closure and the foundation of the Australian Ballet in 1962. McConnochie seems to suggest that the Borovansky company formed well after Galina’s company.) But this is just me being pedantic; the story is ultimately quite satisfying.

So did I enjoy the ballet? Yes, there are some interesting reflections on the practice of ballet, on choreography, and on the role of ballet as a part of the national consciousness. Teddy thinks dance can help ‘uncover the real Australia’, a fairly trite insight perhaps, but the book would be weaker without the discussion, particularly as the 1970s were a time of burgeoning national consciousness in the arts. And what about her treatment of Adelaide? McConnochie was brought up in Adelaide, but was only just born at the time she is writing about. Her view is fairly stereotypical: the boring provincial city, the arts-supporting community largely made up of philistine society ladies, the ballet-going public preferring the old standard classical ballets to anything more modern. It’s a pity she didn’t populate her Adelaide with more interesting characters, particularly as the Galina she describes would never have fitted into that society in the way she has her do after she finishes her dancing career. And don’t sneer at audiences who loved Swan Lake; I remember queuing for hours to get tickets. And there was a embryonic avant garde in Adelaide; I also remember the ballet school I attended putting on a production of L’enfant et les sortilèges, set to Ravel’s spikey music. McConnochie could have done a bit more with Adelaide. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

There’s not much about McConnochie on the internet; here’s her Wikipedia entry. She was named one of the Best Young Australian Novelists by The Sydney Morning Herald on the strength of this book.

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This book is set primarily in the 1930s at the time of the Japanese invasion of China, with all the horror and suffering that involved. And Mo Yan does not shrink from graphic accounts of cruelty and death. I went on reading this distressing book for three reasons. First, it is my book club novel, which I therefore feel I have an obligation to read. Second, events like this happened, and continue to happen; it is little enough to ask that I accept the challenge of reading about them and facing the awfulness on the page that some people face in reality every day. And third, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012; this book, published in 1987 (translated 1993), is an important part of the work for which the prize was awarded, and as such deserves huge respect. But it was still a struggle to get through it.

The story is written as if it were a family chronicle by a son looking back at the lives of his father and mother and grandpa and grandma, though the son hardly ever comes into the story himself. It is in fact quasi-biographical. It is not chronological, moving mostly seamlessly between the experiences of his grandma as a young woman, and the Japanese invasion of China a few years later. The story begins with his father taking part in a guerrilla attack on the invading Japanese near the village of Northeast Gaomi but then moves back in time to when his grandma as a young woman is sent to be married into a rich peasant family in that village – they make wine from sorghum – though things do not go as planned. Incidents may recur, though with slightly different details and emphasis. One example is the accounts of why the family’s wine is so good. Another is the death of Uncle Arhat, who by one version was a resistance martyr and by another a foolish man carried away by rage, though it is presumably Yan’s point that both may be true.

Duality is at the heart of the story. In the landscape there is ‘the Yang of White Horse Mountain’, and ‘the Yin of the Black Water River’. The narrator both loves and hates the village: ‘I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart and to hate it with unbridled fury,’ he says. The township is ‘easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, the most unusual and most common, the most sacred and most corrupt … place in the world.’ The ubiquitous sorghum turns red when the grain is ripe; it looks like a ‘sea of blood’, and that is what it becomes with the arrival of the Japanese. The narrator’s grandfather Yu is both brave and cruel, a man for whom murder is simply a means to an end. Yet is there a difference between murder and killing wounded enemy soldiers? And I couldn’t help wondering about the duality of the whole project of resistance to the invaders; certainly it was heroic, but equally it was doomed, and brought frightful retribution.

Yan has no qualms about being graphic about the violence which both sides inflict on each other, though the Japanese have greater fire power and therefore more occasions to display their brutality. But life in rural China even before the invasion was no picnic. In a way the book is partly a love story, but there is no room for sentimentality; life for the peasants was, to use Hobbes’s phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Yan views life with a slightly wry air; for example the spade Uncle Arhat has attacked a mule with sticks out of its side ‘at a jaunty angle’. The reader already knows just what is going to happen to Arhat because of his actions, making the use of the word ‘jaunty’ highly ironic. This no doubt intentionally makes the story even more difficult to read. I have to confess that I did skip over some bits of the violence.

In line with this duality, there is much lyrical writing, especially about the landscape, and the ever present sorghum fields. The red sorghum represents life and regeneration; there is again a conscious irony that when the narrator returns to the village at the end of the story, the red sorghum has been replaced by a hybrid green variety. It is only through pursuit of red sorghum that he can redeem himself.

Mo Yan’s life seems to reflect the duality that inhabits his writing. Mo Yan is a pseudonym which means ‘don’t speak’, and he rarely gives interviews. He says that ‘for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated’. Some of his writing is critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but he has been a member of the Party for many years, he had a career in the army and is – or has been – the deputy chairman of the party-aligned China Writer’s Association. As the first mainland Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature he received praise from the Party, but Chinese expatriate writers are critical of him for not being more critical of the repression of free speech by the regime. He has, however, had his share of criticism by the government for his sometimes unsympathetic portrayal of Communist Party members. As one reviewer noted, his readers ‘have long been puzzled by the disconnect between his unequivocal criticism of the state in his work and the conformity of his appearances’. Here is the text of a rare interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel – though it didn’t really clear up much of the confusion. On the other hand, if resistance to the regime is as suicidal as resistance to the Japanese, which of us would undertake it?

You can read more about him here, including details of the controversy that surrounded the awarding of the Nobel Prize to him. A highly acclaimed film of Red Sorghum was made by a Chinese studio in 1987-8, released in the West in 1989; here’s a review. I don’t think I want to see it.

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I’ve noted before that the choice of books made by my book club, admittedly often on very limited information about what to read next, is idiosyncratic, sometimes good, sometimes less so. This one is definitely less so. When I started reading the book, I realised that I’d read at least some of it before, but I hadn’t any memory of what happened. It’s that sort of book.

The story is set partly in seventeenth century Venice, and partly in more or less present day Venice (there don’t seem to be many mobile phones or computers). The plot begins with Corradino Manin, a master glass blower, who has returned to Venice from France, where he revealed the secrets of glass blowing and mirror making to Louis XIV’s court. His defection now means he is a marked man, for glass blowers were forbidden to leave Venice so as to maintain its monopoly in fine glass making. The story of why he left and why he returned runs throughout. Alongside it is the story of his distant descendent Leonora Manin. Distraught at the breakdown of her marriage, she flees from London to Venice, the home of the father she never knew. She already has some skill in glass blowing; now she wants to work as a glass blower in Venice. And she is driven to find out more about her ancestor, Corradino. Most of the story is told from the perspective of these two characters, though there are a few odd cases where we get the perspective of other characters.

The plot conforms to two genres. On one level, it is a romance. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to their relationship, but there are no prizes for guessing that they overcome these and end up together. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a romance plot – Pride and Prejudice, for example, has one – but the formula needs better handling than it gets here to remain fresh and interesting. On a second level, it is a mystery story, where Leonora undertakes a quest (sort of) to find more about the life of her ancestor, which she needs to do in order to achieve her dream in the present day. There are some potentially interesting parallels between Leonora and Corradino’s motives, but little is made of them. There are some links between the romance and the mystery, but it is hardly what you might call intricate plotting. Some of the story is pretty silly, too.

One aspect of a book that can rescue a fairly predictable formulaic plot is the setting. Fiorato, who is herself part Venetian, has certainly chosen an interesting place and an interesting craft to write about. Who would have known, for example, that the glass blowers of old had worn away the skin on their fingers so they had no fingerprints? The details of the glass-making trade seem to be more or less authentic, both then and now, and Venice is a clearly a magical city. Can the setting carry the book? Unfortunately I don’t think so.

The problem is that the writing is pedestrian. As always, I find it hard to say exactly what it wrong with it, but it just doesn’t ring true. The characters fail to come alive because they are described in unimaginative ways. The journalist Vittoria, for example, has hair that ‘flashed blue-black in the sunlight’, ‘perfect teeth’, ‘glossy red lips’ and ‘sexy confidence’. This is the language of Mills and Boon romances. What characters say is stilted and trite. Even when Fiorato is trying to be dramatic, she succeeds only in producing melodrama. ‘He laughed harder with the last of his breath.’ Really? And most annoying of all is her habit of placing what is supposed to be a character’s self-reflection and insight in indented italics, as in ‘I shouldn’t have said that. How presumptuous and … clumsy. I’m behaving like a schoolgirl.’ There should be no need for such signposting of feelings; they should be expressed as part of the ordinary writing. I found these indented sections increasingly irritating.

So overall, pretty much a disappointment. Fiorato has a history degree from Oxford, so one might have expected better. You can find out more about her – and her three subsequent books – here. And if you think I’m harsh – after all, the book seems to have sold well – have a look at these comments on Goodreads. There’s lots more detail there about what one reviewer thinks is wrong with the book. And I have to agree with him. Not all of the other Goodreads reviewers feel the same way; some find it harmless escapism, or think the setting redeems it somewhat. I’m all for harmless escapism sometimes, but not when it makes me bored and irritated, as this book does.

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David Malouf is one of Australia’s most accomplished writers. This is his 2009 rendering of sections of Homer’s Iliad– roughly, a much abbreviated version of books 16 to 23. But it explores details not in the original, and exhibits a grace and imagination that befits both the story and the writer.

Ransom deals with the death of Patroclus, Achilles’s battle with Hector, his abuse of Hector’s body and Priam’s recovery of it. This last makes up Part 3 of the book, and goes well beyond Homer’s version. When I started reading, I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming weariness in the face of the apparently never-ending horrors of what men do to each other in war. Why write about it again? But as I read further, the beauty of Malouf’s writing, and the essential humanity of this retelling of the story drew me in.

Malouf was first attracted to the story of the invasion of Troy by the Greeks when he heard part of it as a child during World War II in Brisbane – then the headquarters of General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the war in the Pacific. The story seemed to him the archetype of all stories about war, especially as at time he didn’t know how the war on his doorstep would end. So rather than writing something new, he wrote about the first war to appear in literature. ‘There’s little new that matters under the sun,’ writes David Marr, reflecting on Malouf’s work. ‘We are what we have always been, what moves us has always moved us; we’re writing now as we have always written.’ Malouf says that the ‘whole story of the Trojan war is really central to my notion in terms of feeling of what war is and what the vulnerability is of people, women or children, but also soldiers in war. So it’s haunted me for a long time.’

Malouf believes that since Achilles and Priam were going to come together at the climax of the book, ‘the reader must know as much about those two people as possible’. Achilles is a very divided figure; a hero, the greatest warrior of the Greek army, but also in his grief and anger, capable of doing un-heroic things, as can be seen from his treatment of Hector’s body, as well as sulking in his tent and letting Patroclus fight in his place. He knows that he will die in the war – his mother, a goddess, has told him so – and it becomes a question of how he will be remembered. He is if you like ransoming his future reputation. Future remembrance is also Priam’s concern. He knows that ultimately Troy will fall and he will die, but in addition to acting out of genuine grief over the death of his son Hector, and his outrage at the desecration of his body, he wants to do something that he will be remembered for. He is offering a ransom for his son in a conventional way, but his manner of doing it is startling – an act of moral rather than physical courage.

But Malouf didn’t want just to re-tell the story; ‘I wanted to deal with different aspects of stories from the ones that Homer deals with,’ he says. Thus he writes about Priam’s childhood, and the chances that brought him to the throne of Troy. He also makes it clear that Priam’s choice of how to act in this instance is quite revolutionary. I think the carter who transports the ransom – and certainly his mule – are also from Malouf’s imagination.

I’ve said the writing is beautiful. It is simple and clear, yet quite profound. One random example can show this. Priam is trying to explain to his wife Hecuba his reasons for making his moral act to ransom Hector’s body; he is telling her how it felt to be a child in danger. ‘Imagine, then,’ he says, ‘what is was like to be that child. To actually stand as I did at the centre of it, of what was not a story, not yet, but a real happening, all noise and smoke and panicky confusion. To know nothing of what is to come and simply be there – one of a horde of wailing infants, some no more than three or four years old who have been driven like geese out of the blazing citadel, along with rats, mice and a dozen other small, terrified creatures, all squealing underfoot.’ The precision of the detail is important in evoking sympathy, as is the use of italics. But it’s more than that. Somehow it just gels –the right word in the right place.

It is now agreed that Homer’s story has a basis in fact. As I read about Priam’s expedition to the Greek camp, I was sharply reminded of the landscape of Troy as it is today. The seashore, where the Greeks were camped, is further away now than it was then; his journey would have been considerably longer. The archaeological site that contains the ruins of Troy sit in the middle of open country, with a scattering of olive trees; it is easy to understand how Troy simple disappeared from history until its rediscovery in 1871 by Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist/adventurer who essentially looted the site, carrying off what may or may not have been Priam’s treasure. The entrance to the site sports a giant wooden horse – a part of the history of the Trojan Wars that comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, not Homer’s Iliad.

You can read more about David Malouf here. And here’s an interesting interview with him about the book, from which the above quotations are taken. I’ve also reviewed another book which has Achilles and Patroclus at its centre: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.

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I recently saw the final episode of Tony Robinson’s World War I, which covers the last year of the war and the Allied victory, and it reminded me how accurate a picture John Buchan gives of the final German offensive in his 1919 book Mr Standfast. The title even echoes the argument of one of the historians on Robinson’s program: that the British fought best with their backs to the wall – ie, standing fast. I’m sure there are other books – Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind – which give a much more realistic account of the experience of the war. Buchan’s book is one of his series of ‘shockers’ featuring Richard Hannay; he defines these as ‘the romance [– read adventure -] where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. They were designed to divert, not educate. They are books I read when I was young and I have a real soft spot for them – Empire loyalty and all. But my point is that Buchan had an accurate view of what happened, and used it cleverly in his story.

Buchan had good reason to know what was going on at the front. A lawyer by training, he worked as a war correspondent, as director of intelligence in the Ministry of Information with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and later as a director of Reuters news service. Greenmantle, the other of the Hannay books directly concerned with the war (reviewed here) also has some interesting observations about aspects of the conflict. These include the Young Turks movement and the Islamic revival in Turkey in the early years of the war. Hannay, working undercover in Germany, is actually involved with shipping arms to the Turks to fight the Allies at Gallipoli. And the Russian assault on the Turkish city of Erzurum is real – one of the few Tsarist victories of the war. Here, only the end of the story involves the factual trajectory of the war, when the Germans made their last desperate thrust to get around the Allied positions in northern France.

In this book, Hannay is again recalled from active duty and sent to work undercover, this time in a pacifist enclave at Biggleswick in rural England, the premise being that one of the German spies from The Thirty-Nine Steps is living and working there. Buchan is not hostile to the pacifists, though he clearly prefers those who serve; he makes a hero of a conscientious objector who becomes an unarmed messenger at the front. The code Hannay uses is based on The Pilgrim’s Progress; Mr Standfast is a character in that book. In this one, Peter Pienaar, who has joined the RAF, is his counterpart. The American Blenkiron is also in the story, and there is a new character, Mary Lamington, who Hannay falls in love with. Hannay is soon on the trail of the spy’s network, and chasing him through Switzerland and Italy. As with any quest, there are setbacks as well as victories. The reader always knows what will ultimately happen – it’s that sort of book – but Buchan is more than anything else a great story teller, and keeps the reader thoroughly intrigued along the way.

Mr Standfast is nevertheless my least favourite of the four Hannay stories, (not counting the much later Island of Sheep (1936), or the two other books in which he makes a minor appearance). Too much of it isn’t ‘just inside the borders of the possible’; it’s firmly outside. There’s too much coincidence. The villain gets to gloat over Hannay and of course tell him of his nefarious plans – a plot device I never like. Buchan is notoriously bad at female characters; Mary is far too good to be true. The section dealing with the war comes at the end, and isn’t fully integrated into the rest of the story; it fulfils a purpose more related to what happens in The Pilgrim’s Progress than what happens in the spy story. You have to suspend disbelief, but if you can do so, despite my reservations it’s a good read.

While I found the section on the war at the end to be a clever use of imaginary events that could have happened , Buchan perhaps didn’t take the war story far enough. What he emphasises is the importance of aircraft reconnaissance to the battle to stop the Germans breaking through at Amiens. He doesn’t present it as the turning point it was in the nature of the war, from the horrific slaughter of the static trench stalemate that had prevailed for so long, to a much more fluid and coordinated push by air and ground forces supported by the relatively new weapon, the tank (first used September 1916). I was pleased to see Tony Robinson giving credit to the Australian General, John Monash, for the so called ’Dark Day of the War’ for Germany, the battle which the incident Buchan describes is part of. A civil engineer, not a career soldier, Monash saw the potential of tanks and planes more readily than some of his professional army colleagues. If only this had happened earlier in the war … I might need to read Roland Perry’s biography of him – Monash: The Outsider Who Won A War (2007).

There’s a lot about John Buchan on the internet; you can read a brief outline of his life and work here. Aside from being Governor General of Canada, Buchan is probably best remembered for his shockers, though he would have preferred to be remembered as an historian. You could look out for his own History of the Great War (1922).

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I first came across Bryan Appleyard in 2009 when I read his article in the Sunday Times repudiating his previous scepticism about global warming. He is a columnist who often questions the dogmatism of science, so this was a significant conversion. What brought about the change? ‘I exposed myself to any journalist’s worst nightmare — very thoughtful, intelligent people.’ He’s written several non-fiction books, mostly about some aspect of science, and this is his second novel. It is only indirectly about science.

Bedford Park (2013) begins in 1912 with Calhoun Kidd on his way back to America after spending more than twenty years in England. It then jumps back to his original decision to quit America, his arrival in London and his reluctance to leave it – a kind The Europeans in reverse. I say this because while the book is clearly a satire on the English literary establishment of the day, I’m not always sure just who or what is being poked fun at. Henry James gets a mention, but doesn’t appear in person. Cal is the very opposite of the stereotypical American – he is languid and indecisive. Soon after he arrives, he finds the murdered body of an acquaintance, but is he too ineffectual to do anything about it?

Bedford Park is a real place, developed on the (then) western edge of London in the 1880s. It was seen as a place for residents to escape from the dirty and crowded inner city, the first of the ‘garden suburbs’. And a number of members of the cultural elite lived there or frequently visited it, including the Yeats family and their poetical son Willie, G.K Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. The Russian anarchists Stepniak and Peter Kropotkin frequented it as well. In the book, Cal meets all of these real people, and others; indeed, an important factor in his decision to stay in England is an encounter with Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse, and reputedly the most beautiful woman in Europe. He also becomes friends with the editors of two rival periodicals, W.T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, and Frank Harris of the Fortnightly Review. Some readers may enjoy this; others may find it all too clever by half. I probably missed heaps of sly references.

In an article about the actual Bedford Park, Appleyard seems quite sympathetic to the place, but in the book he emphasises its ‘artistic and political pretensions’. These range from a sort of folksy ‘merry England’ through spiritualism, with Blavatsky and Bessant, to a vague sense of the inevitability of scientific progress. ‘It is a place of art and genius … These suburbs are the way of the future,’ says Cal. ‘It is here that history is being nursed into being,’ says Ford Madox Ford. None of the real characters is treated seriously. Where does the science come in? W.T. Stead claims that spiritualism has a scientific basis, which is clearly nonsense, yet Cheiro, the Irish palm reader (a real person) gives an extraordinarily accurate reading of Cal’s character. This is contrasted with the view of one of the made up characters who has an equally unscientific view of the powers of electricity – but he knows that he doesn’t really understand it, and has real insights into the pretentions of Bedford Park. This exemplifies one of the things that puzzles me about satire: what is being mocked, and what is not? Is there any solid ground for the reader, or is nothing to be taken at face value? I think here it’s the latter, which leaves me flailing round trying to get a grip on what Appleyard is really saying. Though maybe he’s not really saying anything, except that the search for certainly is futile.

Despite the interest of real characters and real places, I have another problem with the book: the plot is thin to the point of being non-existent. It’s hard to write a compelling narrative about a weak man who is ‘blown from side to side like a falling leaf’. Throughout the story the insubstantial Cal is contrasted with Frank Harris, who is blunt and forceful, but his actions are too chaotic to give structure to the story. Instead, we have several set pieces, which are versions of things that did happen, but seem there for effect rather than narrative drive. These include a séance with Madam Blavatsky, a Festival of Healing, and visits to the Bioscope to see moving film and the Olympics at White City in 1908, all historically interesting, but not satisfying as a plot.

There is a twist in the book which I suppose could be called playful, and which isn’t apparent (or wasn’t apparent to me) until you read the appendix at the end. Don’t cheat and read it first – though one review I saw stated it as a known part of the story. It turns on a detail that some people might know, and others might guess, but I think finding it out at the end gives strength and even structure to the story that is otherwise lacking these qualities. Intrigued? Yes, but don’t go overboard trying to find a copy of the book. I think I’d stick to Appleyard’s journalism.

Appleyard doesn’t seem to have a webpage. His books are listed here. And all his articles are available here. He has been three times Feature Writer of the Year and is currently Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards; try this interview with Philip Pullman to see why.

PS There’s a Bedford Park here in Adelaide, but it is definitely not a garden suburb. There is a university in it, though, so perhaps it could be said to have intellectual pretentions.

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End of the Night Girl was published in 2011, as part of the prize attached to an Adelaide Festival Award for a Best Unpublished Manuscript. Apparently it had been turned down by a number of other publishers before this. I find this hard to understand; I think it is a very good book.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how well written it is. I just wanted to keep reading. It made me wonder yet again what makes some writing seem so entirely appropriate to the story it is telling. Is it the right word in the right place? Do the images the writer uses evoke the feeling or the place in a particularly striking way? Or is it because of the story itself touches something specific to the reader’s experience or imagination? Whatever it is – a combination of these perhaps? – I would have thought the book worth publishing just for the power of the writing. Some readers might not like some of the language – I don’t much like the C word myself – but Matthews has a great ear for dialogue, and for language appropriate to character. She captures how people do think and feel.

So what of the plot? Molly is a waitress in an Adelaide restaurant. She has dropped out of university, had a number of boyfriends, drinks too much after work, and is drifting, directionless. Much of the story is made up of small incidents to do with her work and her family, and finally her decision to take on a bit more responsibility. Molly has a sharp tongue and is given to feckless behaviour, but is an interesting and engaging character. Yet if the book consisted only of the daily round of her life – however sensitively portrayed – it might leave the reader saying so what? Is that all there is to it?

But Molly is haunted by the Holocaust. And she writes down bits of a story about a young woman, a Polish Jew, that come, seemingly unbidden, into her head. ‘I’ve been writing this stuff for a couple of years,’ she says, ‘just little scribbles on spare bits of paper.’ The fragments that she has written, set perhaps unnecessarily in a different font, are interspersed throughout the book. They are not in strict chronological order, but start in the 1930s. They tell – or at least indicate – the story of Gienia a village girl, from the death of her father to an arranged marriage in Warsaw then all too soon to the Nazi death camps. The back cover of the book talks of ‘a murdered Polish Jew’, and Molly does write of Gienia’s death. I thought at first that there was sufficient ambiguity in Molly’s account to suggest that she has allowed Gienia to survive. But I guess that whoever wrote the notes for the back cover knows better than I do. Matthews has certainly shown Gienia suffering deeply, and perhaps more unexpectedly, shown her battling for survival against other Jews in the camps.

There is a constant tension between the stories of Molly’s and Gienia’s lives. On one level, they are totally different. Molly’s urban hedonism contrasts with Gienia’s peasant upbringing. When Gienia is starving, Molly is throwing away uneaten food. Gienia tries to hold onto her family, Molly pushes hers away. Gienia has a fierce determination to live while Molly just drifts. But while Gienia’s story has its own outcome already to a large degree predetermined by our – and Molly’s – knowledge of the Holocaust, it also reflects Molly’s own circumstances. Through what she writes about Gienia’s life, Molly is examining her own. ‘I don’t know why I find this life so hard, when it should be so easy,’ she thinks. ‘Standing before the cliff-face of the Holocaust the wild fear I feel sometimes makes perfect sense.’ ‘I build horrors, to make mine trivial, and send her into hell.’ And ‘There is no equivalence, a little voice hisses, but not wanting to listen, I let my thundering heartbeat drown it out.’

So is there an equivalence, and if not, what point is Matthews making? I’m just not sure. Maybe it’s a case of ‘read it again’, or maybe Matthews isn’t clear enough. What worries me is Gienia’s death. Why show all that suffering, all that determination to survive, only to kill her off? If there isn’t a link, an ‘equivalence’, between the two stories, then Molly’s story is diminished. If there is – and surely this is the case – then what is it in Molly’s story that is equivalent to Gienia’s death? We’ve known of that death from near the beginning of the book (to say nothing of the back cover). Sometimes Molly seems scarcely able to control the story she has created; she fears ‘the flurry of words will bury me alive’. But she has chosen that outcome for Dienia; quite early in the story, she says that Dienia’s death ‘has become a constant in my life, something I can depend on when all else falls away.’ Perhaps the point of equivalence is that by the end, Molly no longer needs her? I feel this would be perverse, though I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps I’m just being sentimental about wanting her to survive. Or maybe just too literal; there are ‘non-realist’ elements in the book. I’d love to know what other people think.

You can read a little more about Amy Matthews here (strangely she doesn’t seem to have a web page), and here is an interview with her. She worked for a time as a waitress, so really knows what Molly’s life was like. And just out of interest, here’s another opinion of the book which doesn’t differ all that much from mine. But I was interested to see that it cites a critic from a major Australian newspaper who thought that Molly’s and Gienia’s stories could be considered separately. I think that’s missing the point.

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Here I am again breaking into a series. A Murder Unmentioned (2014) is the sixth in a series set mostly in New South Wales in the 1930s and featuring Rowland Sinclair. Although of course the story is self-contained, a number of the characters and their relationships have obviously been developed in earlier books, and I can’t help thinking that knowing that development might make them seem a bit more real.

Rowland Sinclair is the black sheep of a wealthy family of graziers. He lives an unconventional lifestyle in a mansion in Sydney where he dabbles in painting and takes up left wing causes with three bohemian friends who all seem to be members of the Communist Party. But a visit from the police sends him hurrying back to the family property, Oaklea, near Yass. It seems that his father’s death fourteen years ago, believed to be at the hands of a burglar, isn’t that simple. The reader already knows from the prologue that the burglar story is untrue. But now the gun which killed his father has been found in a dam on the property, along with some items which were believed to have been stolen at the time. So if not a burglar, then who? What motive has a former employee for casting suspicion on Rowland? And why is Rowland so unwilling to talk about it?

I think this novel is best seen as a family saga-cum-historical novel, rather than a crime story. Who killed Father is at the centre of it, but there are lots of family happenings that have only a general relevance to the main game – for example the machinations of Lucy Bennett, the fire at the homestead or Rowland’s sister-in-law Kate’s pregnancy. There is also a lot of material that is included because it is interesting, and of the period. The first chapter sees Rowland taking a flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, with a young Nancy Bird looking on. Everyone’s heard of Kingsford Smith, but some may not know that Nancy Bird was in fact the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence. These characters play no further part in the story – though Rowland’s flying does – so why introduce them, other than for historical interest? Rowland goes to a meeting of the NSW Centre Party, and has a run-in with Eric Campbell, who is trying to turn his fascist New Guard movement into a political party – without success, as it happens. Apparently Rowland has crossed swords with Campbell and his New Guard in earlier books, but it has only the most oblique relevance here. Edna Walling is redesigning the gardens at Oaklea, and Jock Garden of the Communist Party, Bob Menzies of the United Australia Party and Frank Green, Sydney gangster, all make an appearance.  Each chapter begins with what purports to be an excerpt from a newspaper of the time – though I’m not sure if all of them are genuine. All this historical detail is quite fun, but not really necessary in solving the crime. To put it another way, someone has to find the gun in the dam, but it doesn’t have to be Edna Walling.

Gentill has a fairly formal style of writing. I think this is a deliberate strategy when used in relation to conversations between the characters, where she tries, with some success, to catch the tone of relationships in the 1930’s between men and women, bosses and workers, family members and friends. Thus Rowland says of his painting: ‘My father would not have approved of my work … He would not have tolerated it.’ Or his brother Wilfred: ‘Kate was under the impression you admired her.’ Or Lucy’s father: ‘I knew your father, you know … fine man. I expect you’re cut from the same cloth.’ The 1930s feel is heightened by the similarly of the prose style to the newspaper excerpts. I don’t remember seeing the word ‘chums’ used in ordinary prose since I last read a Girl’s Own Annual. But there are too many clichés, such as ‘his jaw tightened’, ‘his eyes flashed fury’, or ‘his voice was thick with contempt’. Just because run-of-the-mill writers may have used such commonplaces in the 1930s doesn’t mean they should be used now in a book about the 1930s. By all means ensure that Rowland raises his hat to ladies, but don’t let it become a platitude.

I like history, so I found the story fun. There is always something of interest happening. Furthermore, the plot so far as it related to the death of Rowland’s father works well, though I thought the final resolution a bit contrived. If, however, I put on my historian’s hat, I’d have to wonder about the relationship between Rowland and his three friends – two male, one female. Apart from occasionally saying something about capitalist domination, the two men seem to lack the passion and conviction it would have taken to be a Communist. Their relationship seems more like Bunter to Wimsey than comrade to comrade (though Rowland is a fellow-traveller, not a paid up Communist). Putting in a lot of historical detail doesn’t of itself make a book genuinely reflect the history of the times. This is a nice try, rather than the creative reimagining at the heart of the best historical novels.

You can read more about Sulari Gentill and her work here. I love the book’s cover.

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I picked up Death and the Maiden (2011) for no better reason than I liked the title – Schubert’s string quartet No 14 in D minor of the same name is one of my favourites. In this book, however, it is the song Schubert wrote in 1817, for which the quartet is named and which is the theme of the second movement, that is being referred to – though in my view with doubtful relevance. I also discovered that this is not a stand-alone story; there are already five other stories featuring the main characters; the books are collectively referred to as the Liebermann Papers.

The story is set in Vienna in 1903. A singer from the court opera is found dead. Is it an accident, suicide, or murder? Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt of the Vienna security office is called in to investigate, and he is joined, as usual in this series, by his young friend Dr Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud. They find that the court opera is a hotbed of rumour and jealousy, in part aimed at the Director, Gustav Mahler. It seems that the Mayor of Vienna, the powerful demagogue Karl Lueger, may also be involved. Then there is the singer’s psychiatrist, who rejects Freud’s theories and has links with the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. Is it sex, or politics, or both that lie behind the singer’s death?

The turn of the century was obviously a fascinating time in Vienna, and Tallis makes frequent reference to contemporary events and movements. On one hand there is the intellectual ferment that produced the theories of Freud, the music of Mahler and the Secessionist movement in art and design. Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze gets a passing mention. Both Rheinhardt and Liebermann are musical – this may have been what brought them together in the first place – and there are lots of references to the music of Chopin, Mozart, Brahms and Mahler. Indeed there is a sub-plot involving the lives of two fictional musicians in which Liebermann unravels a mystery by reference to a composition by one of them. On the other hand there is political turmoil as the tottering Hapsburg Empire struggles against the nationalist forces tearing it apart, and demagogues like Lueger stir up popular discontent, often directing it into anti-Semitic channels. Apparently Lueger really did say ‘I decide who is a Jew’, though not in the context found in this story.

You’d hope with all this material to work with – both real and imagined – that Tallis would have produced an absorbing crime story. But the plot doesn’t really work for me. Some of what seem like non sequiturs– such as the scenes with Liebermann’s former fiancé – may be excused as making more sense in the context of the series. But Liebermann’s role is supposed to be central to the story. He is supposed to use theories about the subconscious as an investigative tool, on the premise that ‘guilty people are always giving themselves away – unconsciously’. Lieberman suggests Freudian motives (hysterical and oedipal) for several of the characters’ actions, but I don’t really find it convincing. His explanations are overly simplistic, and no more compelling than the theory the traditional doctor puts up that the singer had a weak nervous system. Tallis never lets the poor woman speak for herself. He makes the point that forensic science was making great strides just at the same time as psychoanalysis; the relatively new practice of autopsy is important in the story, as are some other forensic details. But overall, Rheinhardt doesn’t have much concrete evidence to go on, placing too much weight on the debatable influence of the subconscious.

Perhaps I would have responded better to all this if I felt the book was truly well written. It’s one of those cases where I find it hard to say just what was disappointing about the style. It’s perfectly adequate writing – but it just doesn’t go beyond that. Neither Rheinhardt nor Liebermann come alive for me, despite Tallis’s attempts to humanise them through music, food and family relationships. And Vienna doesn’t really come alive either; the details have a faintly researched air, rather than one of verisimilitude. This sense that Tallis may be trying too hard is summed up for me by the title. Rheinhardt sings and Liebermann plays Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, with an English translation that shows the maiden pleading with death to spare her, only to have death reply that she has nothing to fear and can sleep softly in his arms. There is no sense in which these sentiments are represented in the story – so why make it the title?

Overall, I didn’t hate it. I was just a bit disappointed that with such rich ingredients it didn’t turn out better. You can read more about Frank Tallis and the Liebermann Papers here. And you can listen to ‘Death and the Maiden’ here.

This is by no means the only crime novel in which Freud appears. Try, for example, The Interpretation of Murder (2007) by Jed Rubenfeld.

 

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This is the book I mentioned recently when reviewing Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (2012) – I wrote about it but forgot to post it at the time. So here it is now.

I suppose it had to happen, but it’s always disappointing to find you don’t respond warmly to a book by an author you normally admire. This is the case for me with Gentlemen of the Road (2007). Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favourite books; you can read my review here. And I’ve also recently enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; that’s reviewed here. But I just can’t get my head properly around this one, though I can see there is much to like.

The story, which is set in about 950 AD, concerns two Jewish wanderers who scratch a living by thieving, trickery and any other nefarious pastime that comes their way. One, Zelikman, is originally from what is now Germany, the other, Amram, is Abyssinian. They are at this time wandering in the Caucuses. Despite arguing over ‘whose definition of “easy money” was the least commensurate with lived experience’, they agree to transport a dispossessed and fugitive prince from neighbouring Khazaria back to his mother’s family in Azerbaijan, though he wishes to return to Khazaria to avenge himself on the usurper who has killed his parents. ‘A gentleman of the road worthy of the title would convey him to the nearest slave market and see what price he fetched,’ says Zelikman. ‘I fear that explains our overall lack of success at this game, Zelikman,’ says Amram. ‘Because I’m not going to do that.’ Unsurprisingly, fulfilling their agreement turns out to be even more difficult and dangerous than this cynical pair imagined.

To my ignorant surprise, Khazaria, ‘the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea’ turns out to have actually existed. Zelikman can hardly believe that there really is a place ‘where a Jew rules over other Jews as king’. Towards the end of the first millennium, the Khazars, whose settlements on the Volga formed a multicultural buffer between Christian Byzantium and the Islamic peoples of the East, adopted a form of Judaism, and welcomed persecuted Jews from both West and East. Jewish Radanite traders on the Silk Road were also welcomed there. I was even more surprised to find that the Rus referred to in the story were actually Vikings originally from Scandinavia; indeed the Rus eventually defeated the Khazars and seized their land, becoming in time ‘Russians’.

I think that my unfamiliarity with the history and geography of the region underlies the problem I had with the book. With the Khrazars, the Arsiyah (Moslims), the Rus and the soldiers of the usurper Buljan, all variously hunting the heroes, or fighting each other, or changing sides, I got confused about who was who and what on earth was happening. I also had to re-read some of Chabon’s very long sentences to catch their meaning – though I did wonder whether reading the book on a Kindle contributed to this. I think Chabon is deliberately writing in a somewhat ponderous style, in homage to the writers of earlier adventure stories like Alexander Dumas. And the long sentences are often quietly funny, as in ‘The African patted the horse’s neck and spoke to it in a velvet language, and Hanukkah caught sight of the broad ax slung across the giant’s back and began to regret his decision to call attention to himself, because kindness to horses was often accompanied in soldiers by an inclination, when it came to men, to brutality.’ The story was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, which accounts for the disconcertingly discrete nature of each chapter.

Writing swashbuckling adventure stories in deliberately stilted prose isn’t usual territory for Chabon. But a closer look reveals the presence of many of his characteristics. His interest in a historical Jewish state matches his creation of an imaginary one in the Sitka Federal District of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. His subtle humour suffuses this story, as it does in his other books. Who can’t enjoy such wry observations as ‘Mercy was a failing, a state of error, and in the case of children, a terrible waste of time.’ Or Zelikman’s ‘I don’t save lives … I just prolong their futility.’

Having got this far with my review, I find I’ve talked myself round. I do like the book, and suggest it is very worth reading. It’s just a good idea to know something about the setting first. You can find out more about Khazania here, and Michael Chabon here.

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After reading Evie Wyld’s traumatic but powerful All the Birds Singing – see my previous post – I was looking for something a bit more relaxed. But having found it, am I sure I really prefer comfortable?

Goddard is a well-established writer of mystery stories, where an ordinary person finds himself (and yes, all his heroes are male, as far as I can remember) having to uncover some dark secret.  Most of his twenty or so books deal with the impact such secrets from the past have on the present – see for example my review of the book before this one, Fault Line (2012). This one (2013), however, is set fully in the past. And a sequel to it – The Corners of the Globe (2014) – has already been published, going on from where The Ways of the World leaves off.

It is 1919. James Maxted, recently a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, wants to start a flying school. But his plans are interrupted by the death of his father, Sir Henry Maxted. Sir Henry was a retired diplomat recalled to service at the Paris Peace Conference. According to the French police, he died in an accident. James goes to Paris to bring his father’s body home, but soon finds there are enough ‘oddities and inconsistencies’ to throw doubt on the official version of events. He feels he has to investigate further. And one thing leads to another. What is the meaning of a mysterious list Sir Henry has left with a beautiful young widow? Why does the British Secret Service have an interest? Who else in the diplomatic community may hold a clue to Sir Henry’s death? You get the picture.

One of the things that interests me about ordinary person mysteries is the motivation of the main character to undertake the always dangerous task of uncovering the truth. Is it credible? Here, Maxted wants to find out why his father died; he feels driven by a sense of family loyalty. I don’t find this totally convincing in the sense that Maxted is rather braver than the average ordinary person. Goddard accounts for this in terms of his war experience: flying small planes over a battle field was not for the faint-hearted. He has been ‘forged by the fire, not consumed.’ When someone suggests he should be afraid, his response is: ‘I seem to have lost the knack’. But I think I’d be more convinced if Maxted wasn’t a bit of a cardboard cut-out – steadfast, loyal and resolute – in striking contrast to his stuffy older brother who just wants to avoid scandal. This is Boys Own stuff. Goddard actually describes Maxted’s actions at one point without apparent irony as ‘derring-do’, a phrase I thought was only ever used facetiously. Goddard hasn’t drawn any of the characters with any depth, which is disappointing. They are there just to make the story work.

And does it? Narrative is one of Goddard’s mains strengths, and he has crafted a clever enough plot. It moves along quickly, the short chapters adding to the pace. As with other amateurs, Maxted’s main way of operating is to ‘keep pushing’ and to see ‘who’s pushing back’. There is treachery and betrayal – common Goddard themes – and Maxted isn’t always right in his assumptions. There is a degree of happenstance and luck. But Goddard has also used the idea that ‘the things we think are unimportant are often the things that catch us out.’ In one case, what would otherwise be a gaping hole in the plot is covered by the explanation being deferred till next time. There are also some very loose ends, presumably deliberately left so that they can be taken up again in the next book. Indeed it may well be that some of what looks a bit like padding – Maxted’s expertise in flying, for example, or his period as a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down – will become relevant in the next book, to which this one is clearly a prelude.

It may also be that the relevance of the Peace Conference comes into sharper focus in the next book. It’s clearly an interesting time, and not one I’ve read about elsewhere. But apart from being an occasion bringing together a number of diplomats, and a matter for concern about the security of the various delegations, the Conference, and what it is trying to achieve, doesn’t play much of a part. Nor has Goddard put much work into the social setting of post-World War I England and France. Maxted’s off-sider, Sam Twentyman, his sergeant and former mechanic, finds it hard not to call his former officer ‘sir’; class is still alive and well, but is glossed over. Paris is cold and bleak, and there are demobilised soldiers begging on the streets, but there is no real sense of post war trauma.

This is perhaps disappointing, because as I noted in the earlier post on Goddard, he set out with higher standards than he seems to be achieving here. He says ‘I was inspired to take up writing by a growing dissatisfaction with much contemporary literature in which I detect a growing rift between technique and meaning. By wedding richness of language and intricacy of plot to narrative drive and dense imagery, I seek to heal that rift’. Well, there’s intricacy of plot and narrative drive, but the richness of language – and of characterisation – seem to have got lost along the way. Some of his earlier novels were better. It seems I need a book that is a bit more of a challenge for real satisfaction.

You can find more about Robert Goddard – and the next book – here.

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One of the great things about being in a book club – besides the interesting discussions and wonderful food provided by my generous book-club friends – is that I get to read books that I probably wouldn’t otherwise come across. The downside is that what we read comes from a list of books held in multiple copies generated from a local library – and taking pot luck doesn’t always result in a satisfying book. After becoming Richard and Judy’s top Summer Read in 2006, this one went on to sell 1 million copies in Britain alone, and the author won the Galaxy (now Specsavers) British Book Award for the New Writer of the Year in 2007, so it seemed a good bet. Not so. I don’t know who Richard and Judy are, but apparently the award is more about sales impact than quality – and it shows.

The story begins in the present day with Alexis, who is visiting Plaka, the village on Crete where her ancestors once lived. Her mother, Sophia, has always been reticent about her family history, but now that Alexis is holidaying in Crete, she has agreed to put her in touch with an old friend who can tell her about the family. The friend, Fotini, agrees, and most of the rest of the book is about what happened to the family between 1939 and 1958. Alexis and Sophia return briefly at the end.

The story that she hears is partly a history of the island of Spinalonga – Greece’s former leper colony – which is located just off Plaka. It is partly a story of the German occupation of Crete during World War II, and partly a family saga of romance and tragedy. Of these, the history of the leper colony is by far the most interesting and even moving, perhaps because the least known. The war history is perfunctory; if you really want to know about the kidnapping of General Kreipe by British special forces, read Ill Met by Moonlight, the account written by one of the participants, W (Billy) Stanley Moss, or better still, see the classic film starring Dirk Bogarde. The family saga unfortunately doesn’t rise above a Mills and Boon romance.

One of the problems with the book is that despite the author saying at the beginning: ‘It was here that Fotini began to relate Sophia’s story’, and near the end: ‘As Fotini reached this point in the story’, Fotini doesn’t actually tell the story. Instead, it is written as a third person history of the family, and contains information that Fotini, a by-stander, could not possible have known. This makes the whole device of Alexis’s visit pointless. Hislop might just as well have told the story, without a modern reference, or alternatively, told it in Fotini’s voice. I don’t think she can have it both ways.

The second, and even greater problem for me, is that Hislop just doesn’t write very well. Some of the description is OK, but her weakness as a writer shows in the excessive use of adjectives, as for example: ’Dressed in the unfamiliar feel of crisp, ironed cotton, she wandered down the dark back stairway and found herself in the restaurant kitchen, drawn there by the powerful aroma of strong, freshly brewed coffee.’ And if she ‘found herself’ in the kitchen, she wasn’t ‘drawn there’. The adjectives are often banal; hair is ‘lustrous’ and roast meat ‘succulent’. Elsewhere, ‘the green fields were verdant’ – no doubt they were, since verdant means green. And ‘he was being pressurised by his parents to find a wife’ – I’m perhaps being picky here, but what’s wrong with ‘pressured’? This is disappointing from someone who read English at Oxford and worked in publishing and as a journalist.

Furthermore, Hislop has not succeeded in giving any depth to her characters. Circumstances ensure that the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, and some of the characters behave badly. But no one has any shades of grey, and each is absolutely predictable in their actions and emotions. The ‘good’ characters are just too noble. I know you can’t expect writers to come up with entirely new angles on romance, but Jane Austen did the one found here first, and better, with Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. I’m simply not convinced.

One of the comments on the back of the book praises it for showing that ’love and life continue in even the most extraordinary of circumstances’ and this is perhaps the book’s saving grace. The information Hislop gives about the leper colony on Spinalonga and the disease itself is interesting and important, given the strong prejudice against lepers that has existed for centuries. That people managed to live any sort of normal existence in the colony – and she seems to have done her research on this – is indeed a testament to the human spirit.

Obviously other people don’t agree with my less than flattering estimate of this book; here’s the review that generated the blurb on the front: ‘a beach book with heart’. Hislop has written two further books, one of which, The Return (2008) is set in Granada during the Spanish Civil War. Given the Spanish emphasis of my current reading, I should try it – but somehow I don’t think I will. You can read more about Hislop here.

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It’s probably evident only to me that lately I’ve had a bit of an obsession with books about aspects of Spain. Recent posts include Robert Wilson’s crime fiction series set in Spain, with The Hidden Assassins and The Blind Man of Seville; then there was Moorish Spain, an historical account by Richard Fletcher and The Alhambra, by Washington Irving, a nineteenth century mixture of reportage and legend. OK, but what has this got to do with George Eliot? Well, Deronda is a name that would once have been de Ronda; though he doesn’t know it, Daniel’s family were Jews living in the Spanish town of Ronda before being driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. I should in all consistency write a post on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is set in the Spanish town of Segovia, and recounts events that actually took place in Ronda. But that’s for another day.

Daniel Deronda (1876) was George Eliot’s last novel. For the critic F.R. Leavis, it confirmed her greatness as a novelist. He initially suggested that the two story threads that make it up could best be seen as two separate books, one chronicling the fate of Gwendolen Harleth, the other dealing with Daniel Deronda. But he later concluded that what bound their stories together was more important than the seemingly disparate elements. In this I agree with him.

The book begins with Gwendolen, a spoilt young woman who wants to be independent – but not from any feminist desire for self-improvement or doing good to others: ‘She meant to do what was pleasant to herself in a striking manner; or rather, whatever she could do so as to strike others with admiration and get in that reflected way a more ardent sense of living’. She is a main character, but is she a heroine? Certainly she is no Emma; Austen Jane said that Emma was ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’, yet everyone does so. This is not the case for Gwendolen. Yet the power of Eliot’s writing is to show Gwendolen as selfish and conceited, but at the same time to show that she has other, better feelings. You can’t completely dislike her.

Gwendolen is in the same position as other nineteenth century females in life and literature in that her life chances are drastically limited; there are few roles open beyond wife and mother. Her story in some ways echoes the form of the ‘romance’ of which Jane Austen was such a mistress; a man and a woman find they love each but obstacles arise and they must struggle to overcome them. (There are some interesting comparisons between Austen’s and Eliot’s preoccupations; see for example two quotations: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.’ And ‘Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach.’) But without telling you what actually does happen, I can say that this is not the case here; it is more a story about redemption than successful romance. This is probably one of the reasons a critic like Leavis approves the book; he thought literature should carry moral weight. But how Gwendolen comes to understand herself differently seems to me to show great psychological insight on Eliot’s part, and I certainly didn’t find any sense of there being a moral for morality’s sake.

Deronda is the protégé Sir Hugo Mallinger, a well-to-do English gentleman who has brought him up to be an English gentleman in his turn. Deronda himself, and most other people, think he is Sir Hugo’s unacknowledged illegitimate son. This belief has an unsettling effect on him; what are the implications of it for his place in English society, and as we would say these days, for his sense of identity? It seems at first that Deronda’s story is secondary to that of Gwendolen, and it’s true that Eliot could have written a whole novel about her fate, and Deronda’s part in it. But a kind act on his part leads the narrative into another path altogether where Deronda seeks to find out about his mother. In doing so, he finds he has quite a different heritage from the one he was brought up with. I guess I gave this away be saying that his family name was originally de Ronda, but knowing that (which may in any case have been be self-evident to some) doesn’t spoil the story of what he finds out. Unlike Gwendolen, however, Daniel is rather too much a paragon of virtue. Eliot occasionally gently mocks him, and we see his doubts and fears. But he is unvaryingly generous and thoughtful. In my view, being consistently nice makes him a foil for Gwendolen, rather than deserving the title role; his circumstances change, but he does not develop as she does.

These two stories are linked in many ways into an intricate pattern. Thinking about it in a purely objective way, there are too many coincidences, too many parallels. But reading the book, I really enjoyed these. There is so much insight, so much interest in Eliot’s narrative that somehow the twists of fate seem acceptable in ways they might not in the hands of a lesser writer.

I haven’t left much space to comment on Eliot’s writing. Yes, there were a few times when the long sentences seem over-burdened with qualifying clauses and the nineteenth century prose style makes reading seem like wading through treacle. Eliot writes with the ‘god perspective’ that allows her to know all, and reveal all about her characters, and to moralise, if you like, in ways that are quite unfashionable among modern writers. It took me a little while to get used to it, but Eliot in general writes with such a light ironic touch that reading her quickly becomes a pleasure.  I’ll give just one tiny example: ’Lord Slogan [was] an unexceptionable Irish peer, whose estate wanted nothing but drainage and population.’

The link with Spain turned out to be tenuous – but I’m really glad it prompted me to read the novel. You can find out more about George Eliot here, and about the book here. There’s rather more to it than I’ve indicated in this post. F.R. Leavis wrote the introduction to the edition I read; I found his prose far more opaque than George Eliot’s. A 2002 TV series based on the book sounds interesting.

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It’s purely by chance that I’m reviewing yet another book about magic (see The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). I don’t have a particular interest in magic – far from it. In fact I feel rather like the reviewer of The Night Circus (2011) in the Guardian who, being ‘resistant to historical fiction … hostile to whimsy, and beyond impatient with the fantastical’, might have been expected to hate it, only to find it enchanting. Because I enjoyed it too.

Set in the 1880s through to the early twentieth century, The Night Circus is about the competition between two magicians to establish which of their magical techniques is superior. Their rivalry is of long standing, and takes the form of periodic ‘challenges’ in which their students compete. This time one of the magicians, Henry Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter), pits his young daughter Celia against Marco, an orphan chosen and trained by the other magician, known only as Alexander, or Mr A. H-. Celia and Marco know there is a game, but do not initially know that they are competitors, or how the outcome will be decided. The venue for the game is to be a production organised by a wealthy theatrical entrepreneur, Chandresh Lefèvre, and that production is the Night Circus – sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.

The circus simply appears in various far-flung locations. It is open from dusk to dawn. It contains some apparently conventional circus acts, such as a contortionist, trapeze artists (who work without a net) and a fortune teller, but there aren’t any clowns and very few performing animals. Instead, there things like a hall of mirrors, an ice garden, a wishing tree and a cloud maze. Patrons have a ‘magical’ experience, in the sense of amazing or wondrous, but don’t understand the foundation of the circus as magical in the paranormal sense. ‘People see what they wish to see. And in most cases what they are told they see.’  For the two competitors, it is an opportunity to showcase their magical skills. This is ‘actual magic disguised as stage illusion.’ But is there a price to be paid for mixing magic and reality? Who will pay it?

The basic story of the magical challenge is augmented by the stories of other characters who are either creators of some of the non-magical aspects of the circus, such as the clock maker, Friedrick Thiessen, performers like Isobel the fortune teller, and lovers of the circus like Bailey, a young American drawn into its ambit. All have a part to play, but the use of magic may or may not work out well for them. Magic has ramifications. As Celia notes, the game is about ‘how we deal with the repercussions of magic when placed is a world that does not believe in such things.’

The story, which is told in the present tense, jumps backwards and forwards in time, though only over a limited period. I’m not sure why Morgenstern has chosen to do this; possibly to add to the sense that the circus lies outside normal time. She is perhaps reinforcing through narrative form the idea that though magic can’t reverse time, it can make it be experienced differently. There are also short sections throughout that describe the experience of the circus, as if addressing a member of audience, as in ‘You watch the performance from this precarious vantage point, directly below the performers.’ This is intended to give the reader a sense of involvement, but also has a structural purpose made clear at the end.

Some reviewers (here’s one, anyway) have found the story slight and overly sentimental, and the characters, though suitable to their part in the story, not particularly memorable. I found it helped to think of it as a romance, with obstacles to be overcome, and somewhat set parts for the main characters. Certainly it is not a drama asking profound questions. So what did I like about it? I liked the circus. It is a beautifully imagined alternative reality, there for the reader to explore in a very visual way. And the book does raise interesting considerations about the relation between competition and collaboration, collusion and manipulation, fate and freedom. In the words of the Guardian reviewer who liked it (see above), The Night Circus ‘poses questions about the essential connection between fantasy and reality, and the human need for the former for the sustenance of the latter.’ It’s not at all like any other book about magic I’ve ever read.

This is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel. She’s also, perhaps not surprisingly, a visual artist. You can read more about her here. A film of the book is said to be ‘under development’.

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The Baroque Cycle (2003-4) is a series of eight books, published for convenience in three volumes, entitled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. In all, there’s around 2,500 pages – not an enterprise for the fainthearted. But we had a long spell of very hot weather in Adelaide, so I had plenty of time to read.

Stephenson has taken a number of characters and themes appearing in his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon and projected them back, as it were, into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. So we have the ancestors of the modern characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a number of Shaftoes, some Comstocks, some von Hacklhebers and Enoch Root – though Stephenson says he is the same Enoch Root who appears in the twentieth century story. There are also the imagined interactions with real people, as in Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Benjamin Franklin, to say nothing of Louis XIV, William of Orange and Caroline of Hanover. The preoccupations of many of these characters are similar to those of their twentieth century physical and intellectual descendants – ie philosophy, mathematics, code breaking, technology, war and weaponry and the functioning of trade and money. I really liked this echo effect, and would suggest reading Cryptonomicon before venturing further.

Stephenson describes the Cycle as having a science fiction mindset. I think what he means is that he has created an alternative world, rather than evoking the real historical one. But it is also an historical epic, full of ‘swordplay, swashbuckling and derring-do’. It takes place between 1664 and 1714, and is set at some point in the tale in almost every part of the then known world. This was a time of seething intellectual, religious, political and economic change across Europe, a ‘quicksilver world’, where ‘power came of thrift and cleverness and industry, not of birthright, and certainly not of Divine Right’. At least this is what the author seeks to illustrate through the activities of his characters. I don’t really know how historically correct it is, and obviously Stephenson can’t ignore history. Indeed, there is a huge amount of information on show about the details of all aspects of life– too much for some reviewers, who found it could be boring, as I occasionally did. And there are a number of historical processes, especially ones associated with technology, that hold the whole complex story together. But as his comment about science fiction shows, Stephenson isn’t really interested in imaginative historical reconstruction; he is at his best telling an exciting story, and for the most part, this is what he does. There are plagues, fires, battles, espionage, sea voyages, pirates, slavery, even the Spanish Inquisition and sundry other adventures, as well as love, loyalty, friendship, cruelty and treachery.

I like the way Stephenson writes. He hasn’t tried for a complete period effect in his alternate world; there are a number of quotes from writers of the time like Bunyan, Hobbs and Defoe to remind us of the real thing. But there are many sentence constructions and some word usages which give an historical feel to the writing, such as ‘oeconomy’, or ‘lanthorn’, ‘similitude’, or my favourite, ‘phant’sy’ or ‘phant’sied’, covering any of thought, considered, fancied or believed. Along-side this is a modern sensibility expressed in modern jargon, like ‘the commodities market’, ‘it looked like a win’, or the list of ‘weaponized farm implements’, ‘viz. war-sickles, combat-flails, assault-shovels and tactical-adzes’. ‘If it is funny, or it works’, Stephenson says, he is happy to put it in. But it’s also integral to his ‘science fiction’ mindset.

Indeed Stephenson is a very ‘take it or leave it’ sort of writer. He makes no concessions; you can almost see him thinking ‘what the hell, I like this so I’ll put it in.’ This makes his books very long, and to a degree, self-indulgent. Sometimes, indeed, the action is completely over the top. I think this tendency is more apparent in the Cycle than in the other of his books I’ve read. It also perhaps arises from the episodic nature of the story; each new section has to be filled out in detail with a different setting, different circumstances and different adventures, whatever the common themes (though this is less true in the third volume). The division into books and volumes is also problematic, in that if you want to know what happens, you need to read it all. The volumes aren’t stand-alone – though I note that all of them have individually won prizes, so perhaps others wouldn’t agree with me about that. Each book, and therefore each volume (except the last one) ends on a cliff hanger note for some character, rather like a TV show that is making sure you watch the next series. I did find I overdosed a bit, and had to take some breaks from reading for a while, particularly in the third volume, which seems overburdened with detail and hype. But I was always pleased to go back to it.

Because I so much like the way Stephenson writes, I’m always going to take pleasure in his books. But if you aren’t already a fan, I wouldn’t start with these three. You can read my posts on Cryptonomicon (1999) here, Anathem (2008) here and Reamde (2011) here.

You can read more about Neal Stephenson, including interviews about the books, on his web-site.

 

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When it got so hot in Adelaide recently, the only thing to do was to sit quietly and read a book. So I chose to re-read a former favourite, Gaudy Night (1936), and to see how it has stood the test of time.

Dorothy Sayers is one of the classic writers of Golden Age crime fiction, which was dominated by the sort of clever puzzle mysteries she is so good at. In the early books, her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey reads like a bit of a parody of the upper class Englishman, complete with monocle and a repertoire of silly slang.  But in the later books, particularly those which also feature Harriet Vane, herself a writer of detective stories, he shows that under his flippant nonchalance he has uncertainties and sensitivities.  Indeed the Vane/Wimsey stories could also be thought of as love stories with a bit of detection thrown in. Gaudy Night is the third of the four Vane/Wimsey stories. If you are new to them, it’s worth starting with the first one, Strong Poison (1930) because it sets up the relationship between Vane and Wimsey – with all its problems.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet goes to the student reunion – traditionally known as a Gaudy Night – of her Oxford College, Shrewsbury (imaginary, but based on Sayers’s own women’s college, Somerville). There she is exposed to some unpleasant anonymous messages. She is distressed because one of the messages might apply to her own circumstances. But she thinks no more of it until sometime later when the Dean of the College asks her to come and investigate a spate of such messages, and other malicious damage which has occurred around the college. Harriet unwillingly agrees. The perpetrator becomes bolder, and the incidents more dangerous. It is clear that whoever is doing this must come from within the College. Could she be a student? A member of the domestic staff? Surely she couldn’t be one of the members of the Senior Common Room? And how difficult will it be for Harriet to translate her writing about mysterious crimes into solving one?

A second strand in the story is her relationship with Wimsey. He fell in love with her in Strong Poison, and saved her life when she was charged with murder. Harriet feels beholden to him, ‘the creature of his making and the mirror of his own magnanimity’; needing to be grateful to him ‘is simply damnable’. ‘The fact is,’ she thinks, ‘I have got a bad inferiority complex … I could have liked him so much if I could have met him on an equal footing …’ So here we have the classic elements of romance: a relationship that can only progress to mutual love once certain problems are overcome. It didn’t happen in the previous book (Have His Carcass, 1932); will it happen in this one? And where might Wimsey fit into Harriet’s efforts at detection?

But what really sets this book apart is what has been described as Sayers’s ‘love affair with Oxford’. Most of the action is set there, and the buildings, the landscape, the social customs and ambiance of 1930s Oxford life are affectionately conveyed – she clearly loves the place. Even more important is her depiction of the academic life that is lived there by the female dons; its values are central to the story.

How does this stand up to a modern reading? I have a somewhat mixed reaction. The puzzle Vane and Wimsey have to solve is cleverly established, especially as the clues to the solution, which are only easy to see in retrospect, are really as much about states of mind as about the physical evidence. While the denouement is quite powerful, this is not an action packed thriller, and it may move too slowly – and with a bit too much Oxford – for some readers. I am sentimental enough to enjoy the love story. Sayers writes well, and Vane and Wimsey are both well drawn and interesting characters. She writes intelligently about academic life, though her conclusions would now probably be considered simplistic. Sayers is clearly a feminist – though of course she does not use that word – and is passionate in her defence of the need for equality in education, and about the difficulty of the choice that had to be made then between marriage and paid work.

However there remains the question of whether her loving description of the life of a tiny elite – with an aristocratic detective to boot – can still evoke sympathy and interest. The characters are not unaware of the issues of class and privilege, but that doesn’t alter the reality of it in the story. Some of the female dons protest against any automatic assumption that the outrages are being committed by one of the servants. But servants they remain. Wimsey is aware that the aristocracy is becoming a back number: ‘Our kind of show is dead and done for,’ he says. ‘What the hell good does it do anybody these days?’ But he’s still rich and privileged. This could reasonably be seen as Sayers telling it like it is; readers of today may or may not find it interesting. Re-reading it, I found her veneration of Oxford and all its traditions a little difficult to appreciate unreservedly, even as an escape from the heat. But don’t let me put you off. Like I said, the love story is nice.

You can read more about Dorothy Sayers here. She says that ‘The novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland’ but I don’t believe her. Harriet Vane shares too many of her experiences with Dorothy Sayers for it all to be make believe.

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Published in 2010, this is Elizabeth Speller’s first novel. I came across her work when I read a review of her second book, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012), which features the same main character, so I thought I should read the first one first. I’m not sure that was a good idea. On one hand, it certainly establishes the background and circumstances of the main character. On the other, it reads a bit like a first novel – promising, but flawed.

It is 1921. Captain Laurence Bartram has survived the cataclysm of the World War, but is now drifting and purposeless. His wife died in childbirth during the war, and his baby son soon after; now his life before 1914 is ‘a closed world he could never reach back and touch.’ He has been commissioned to write a book about London churches, but is making slow progress. Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of his school friend, John Emmett. He too survived service in the war, but has recently committed suicide. Mary wants Laurence to help her understand why. Though Laurence feels he is unlikely to be much help, he remembers liking Mary, and agrees to try. But what if the truth will be of no comfort to her?

This story has the form of a classic mystery, where an ordinary person undertakes some sort of quest to uncover a secret. Laurence makes a good ‘ordinary person’: he is a kind and decent man, troubled by his own memories of what he has lived through. One thing he finds out leads him to another, until the whole picture – or almost the whole picture – becomes clear. Along the way he gets help, mainly in the form of information. Quite a lot of this comes from another school friend, Charles, who has a wide range of friends and relations who together seem to know almost the entire surviving officer class from the war. I’m sure Speller is right in saying that at least in the early years of the war, getting a commission was a class thing; a question of going to the right school and having the right background. Many of them would be likely to have friends and relations in common.  Nevertheless, my problem with Charles is his role in the structure of the plot; his body of knowledge is just too convenient. There are also some fairly wild coincidences: sentences like ‘Even as he absorbed the extraordinary coincidence unfolding in front of him’ don’t really make up for the hole in the plot that necessitates them. The reader will certainly work out what is happening quicker than Laurence does. And the resolution takes a form that I think is a bit amateur.  Overall, there is too much telling and not enough showing. But this is a fault of a first time novelist, and there are other things to like about the book.

Speller has been praised for her scrupulous presentation of the early 1920s, and in general the context she provides is interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking. (There is one anachronism though – see if you can pick it.) However I found Laurence’s middle class perspective a bit limiting at times, as for example when he assumes the person he is looking for must have been an officer: it takes him several chapters to figure out that he could have been an ordinary soldier. He then at least does reflect on the class-bound basis of the army. But Charles especially reminds me of characters in the snobbish stories of the 1920s mystery writer Dornford Yates – that is, he has no character outside what is almost a parody of the English gentleman.

The book’s main strength, for me, is the issue of military discipline that is at the heart of the story. Speller has researched the area closely – she gives some references in an afterword – and it is well to be reminded what powers the British Army wielded over soldiers at that time, particularly as the centenary of the beginning of World War I approaches, with all its opportunities to romanticise the terrible sacrifice. Laurence is able to regain his emotional life by admitting to himself that during his service, he was terrified much of the time by the thought of dying. ‘We weren’t supposed to be frightened, not so that it showed,’ says one character. ‘Now when you look back, you can see that fear was the rational response to much of it’. And Speller suggests that what soldiers had to endure was essentially unendurable. This is hardly new, but highlighting the psychological as well as the physical damage caused by the war gives depth to her story.

Overall, at the better end of holiday reading. You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here. She has just published a third book, though not featuring Laurence Bartram – there’s only so many adventures the ‘ordinary man’ can have before he makes a profession of it. The new one deals directly with the Great War. It seems like there might be a bit of an industry this year round the centenary of its outbreak. And certainly lots of controversy.

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January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated annually on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seems highly fitting that I finished reading The Street Sweeper (2011) on that day, for much of it concerns events at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Questions about the liberation of Dachau are also important in the plot. The book took me some time to read; I had to put it down and leave it several times because I simply couldn’t go on. Is it the power of the events, or the power of the author in telling them that makes such an impression? The events would speak for themselves whatever the medium; Perlman’s achievement is to make you want to read on.

The book tells a number of stories that belong both to Perlman’s characters, and to the history of the twentieth century. The book is set in New York in the present, but the action often reverts to the past. The two main characters in this vast sweep are Lamont Williams, a young African American man just out of gaol after serving six years for a crime he didn’t commit, and Adam Zignelik, a historian at Columbia University whose personal and professional life is falling to bits. Although unknown to each other, a web of connections links them, made up of people they come into contact with, and things they learn from and about them. The story is much too complicated even to outline here, but it reaches back to the experience of African American soldiers in World War II, to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to unionism in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, to school desegregation and the American Civil Rights movement. How do these fit together? Adam says ‘you never know the connections between things, people, places, ideas. But there are connections.’ This is the premise the story based on, and I am in awe of the amazing feat of story-telling that Perlman has produced to tie it all together. Almost everything and everybody in the story relates to, or makes reference to, something or someone else. This could be seen as artificial, but I didn’t find it so. One tiny example suffices to illustrate this sort of referencing: the daughter of Adam’s boss at Columbia (whose father was a friend of his father) is speaking to her mother, (who is Lamont’s cousin, though she hasn’t seen him for many years) about a book she is supposed to be reading for school. ‘It sucks … It’s boring and … unrealistic.’ What is the book? Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the great American realist classic set in the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

History, then, is central to the story. Early in the book, Adam asks his students: ‘What is History’? ‘With the facts you know are solid underneath you,’ he says, ‘build a bridge to the unknown. Is this true, likely to be true, unlikely to be true or is there not enough known to you to say?’ Though this book is fiction, a lot of it is based on what is true, and a lot more on what is likely to be true. A number of the characters are either real people or based on real people; the book is dedicated to eight women, four Jewish, four African American, ‘who all died from different manifestation of the same disease’ – racism.

But being fiction, Perlman invokes another category: the imaginative recreation of what might have happened. What the imagined historian Adam discovers could have been true; it is fiction based on the spirit of what actually happened rather than any of his more precise historical categories. In the story, the imagined ex-prisoner Lamont Williams is the source of an account of real events he has learned about from a Jewish ex-inmate of Auschwitz; that never happened, and the historical account he reports is known from other sources. But Lamont is also true to the spirit of what happened; he is ‘desperate for people to remember other people.’ In this, he is unconsciously echoing the plea of the Jews of Auschwitz-Birkenau to ‘tell everybody what happened here’, a plea at the heart of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and of this book.

You can see from the sort of history being covered here, which, by the way is beautifully researched, that much of the book is very grim. The personal relationships of most of the characters are not happy either. So why did I keep going? It was partly the compelling interest of both the story and the characters, and the urge to know what would happen next. I think I also felt some kind of a duty to the victims of this history. Who could refuse to hear when they cry ‘tell everybody what happened here’? I also took heart from the book’s epigram from Ana Akhmatova: ‘Mountains bow down to this grief … But hope keeps singing from afar’.

Elliot Perlman is the son of second-generation Jewish Australians, and he grew up in Melbourne. You can read more about him here. This is his third novel, and he has a book of short stories. His second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2004. It was beaten by The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – no disgrace there. But for a novelist that one French literary magazine has called ‘one of the 50 most important writers in the world’, he seems strangely little known in Australia.

The history in this book is fascinating, if horrifying. You can read more about the Little Rock Nine here, the Packinghouse Workers Organising Committee here, the history of wire recorders here and the Sonderkommando revolt here. It is interesting that the publicity around the publication of the book also contributed to finding evidence relevant to one of the historical disputes that is important in the story; for the dispute, see here, and for Perlman’s disclosure of the new evidence on it in 2012, see here.  Will it resolve the dispute? ‘One wonders,’ he writes, ‘whether there are still some people for whom the eyewitness testimonies of African-Americans and of Polish Jews are not enough.’

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This time of the year everyone seems to be writing about ‘the best of 2013’, so I thought I’d join in. Here are my five favourite books from this year. They weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. The top three were easy, but numbers four and five were difficult choices and I could easily have made different ones. Why do I think they are ‘the best’? Putting them together like this makes me realise that in each case it is the writing style that appeals to me. What the author is saying is also important; each of these books seems to me to have an important message. But the message becomes most appealing when it is delivered beautifully, as is the case in all of these. I’ve linked to my original reviews for more information about them.

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl (2012) is a very clever mystery story about the disappearance of a young woman from her home in North Carthage, Missouri. Has she been kidnapped? Or murdered? What is her husband Nick’s role in this? Can either of them be trusted as narrators? The ingenious plot is set against the background of post GFC America; Nick and Amy’s moral landscape is as bleak as the physical setting. The combination of social commentary and plot twists is brilliantly done.

4. Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This couldn’t be more different from number 5. Set in 1956, Home (2008) is a companion to Robinson’s Gilead (2004), but I couldn’t exclude it for that reason, though I think it’s better to read Gilead first, as both books cover some of the same ground. Jack Boughton is the disreputable son of the Presbyterian minister of the small town of Gilead. The Reverend Broughton is old and ill. He loves Jack, but despairs of his wild ways. Why has Jack chosen to come home now, after so many years away?  This is a book where the story is simple. It is the relationships that matter – but also the reflections on American history and society that Robinson quietly alludes to. I know of no other writer who can make silences mean so much.

3. Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

It’s true I didn’t warm to this book as easily as I did to Wolf Hall (2009), the first in the trilogy. I think this was because I found the striving Cromwell of the first book more attractive than the successful courtier of this one. But I still very much enjoyed it, and nobody can deny how well Mantel writes. I like her use of the present tense and her sharp, modern dialogue. It’s true that we all know more or less what is going to happen, but Cromwell doesn’t, which adds hugely to the tension. Mantel doesn’t pretend she is writing history; it’s how Cromwell might have seen it – an imaginative recreation. Maybe it’s best to read Wolf Hall first, though.

2. The Heart Broke In, by James Meek

This is a wonderfully complex story that Meek nevertheless manages to hold together in a very satisfying way. Set mostly in present day England, with brief excursions to Africa, it is part social commentary, part exploration of morality, part thoughts on science, part love story and part family saga. And that description only scratches the surface. There is a rich cast of characters. And then there is the writing. Meek has a great ear for the vernacular, a wry vocabulary to describe modern life, and the capacity to write movingly about love, betrayal and death. A great combination.

1. Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

And the winner is Flight Behaviour (2012). Maybe I’m biased in my choice, because Flight Behaviour is about the effects of climate change, an issue in which I am passionately interested. The migration of Monarch butterflies has been disrupted by the destruction of their winter habitat, and they have settled instead in a valley in the Appalachians. But they are constantly as risk from the weather. Kingsolver doesn’t lecture about the effects of climate change; she shows them. But even if readers only have a mild interest in this subject, I think they’d have to agree that it’s a beautifully written book. The story is complex and satisfying. Kingsolver shows a rare humanity in presenting her characters as fully rounded and truly human. Some of this comes from her ability to write convincing dialogue. But her descriptions of people, family, nature, and life in general in rural Bible belt America are superb.

Only one of these books – Bring Up The Bodies – won any of the big literary prizes, so critical opinion isn’t on my side. But I don’t care. These are the books that moved me most this year, and I hope that other readers will enjoy – or have already enjoyed – them too. Happy reading.

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This book won the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction, but rarely has that award resulted in so much disagreement about the merits of the recipient. A.N. Wilson said he was ‘awestruck with admiration for the quality of its writing, its narrative pace and its imaginative depth’, whereas a reviewer in The New York Times thought it had ‘the head of a young adult novel, the body of the “Iliad” and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland’.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad – otherwise known as The Song of Ilian, another name for Troy. The story is narrated by Patroclus, who becomes the beloved companion of Achilles and accompanies him to the war in Troy. The Iliad starts during the last years of the Trojan War. But Patroclus and Achilles don’t even reach Troy until over half way through this book. The first part is taken up with Patroclus’s own story: his childhood, his meeting with Achilles, their growing friendship, their education by the centaur Chiron and the attempt by Achilles’s mother, the sea nymph Thetis, to keep Achilles from the war with Troy by disguising him as a woman. Miller has elaborated on existing legend; she hasn’t actually made stuff up. But she has put the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles at the centre of the story. Its precise nature is never explained in the Iliad; here is clear that they become lovers. Indeed Miller refers to the book as a love story.

The question of foreknowledge operates at two levels in the book. On one hand, the characters have some knowledge of the future by means of prophecy, and information given by the gods. The world Patroclus describes is one where the actions of gods are an accepted part of life, as is the need to propitiate them. Only Thetis – an immortal, if not actually a god – actually plays much part in the story, though Apollo also appears at a crucial point. But the gods and their whims are a constant presence. ‘There is no law that gods must be fair’, Chiron tells Achilles. Achilles is told that he will be the best fighter of his generation, and later that while Hector lives, Achilles cannot die. Achilles and Patroclus know that ‘the best of the Myrmidons’ – the followers who have accompanied Achilles to Troy – will die before Achilles does. Such riddles add tension to the story, and I found it easy to accept Patroclus’s world view. But how can human love stand against the will of the gods?

The second issue of foreknowledge is that of readers, most of whom will have at least some familiarity with the events of the Trojan War. (The best known story of the war – that of the wooden horse and the defeat of the Trojans – doesn’t come into either the Iliad, or this story.) Does this knowledge interfere with the tension of the book? I didn’t find it did; indeed knowing what was to happen only made the tension greater. The story actually extends beyond what happens in the Iliad, and Miller has taken a few liberties with the ending. But it works well enough.

So what is there to cause all the controversy? Miller writes well, in a tone appropriate to her subject, so it can’t be that. There are a few places where her prose slips up – you can see a couple of them here. The story flows, and is easy to read. I guess it’s a question of whether or not you think she has sufficiently humanised her mythic characters. Through Patroclus, she tries to come to terms with the fact that Achilles is being trained, and training himself, to be an instrument of war, a killing machine. But making it a love story has made this hard to do. Achilles accepts that honour in battle is the highest cause – greased, of course, with the desire for plunder. ‘What is more heroic than to fight for the honour of the most beautiful woman in the world, against the mightiest city of the east?’ asks Odysseus. To remain within the spirit of Homer’s epic, Patroclus has to accept this too, and even in the face of all the killing, he offers unconditional love. He presents himself as somewhat passive – a natural follower. What is there interesting enough in him to inspire the sort of love that Achilles feels for him? I find their relationship a bit too bland – though not to the extent of comparing it with a Barbara Cartland romance!

Madeline Miller is a trained classicist who was teaching Greek and Latin to American high school students while writing this book. She certainly clarifies a story I’ve always found a bit confusing, and probably awakens an interest in classics like the Iliad. Some of the story as she tells it has real power. But even though it fleshes out aspects of the legend that aren’t clear, it doesn’t make an imaginative leap beyond it. A strength or a weakness? I’m still not sure.

You can read more about Madeline Miller and her work here

PS. I always thought that Achilles was invulnerable everywhere else but his heel, which had been gripped by Thetis when she dipped him into the river Styx to try and make him immortal – hence the phrase ‘Achilles heel’. But apparently this is a later accretion to the legend and not part of the Iliad, or this book.

PPS. If you like this book, you might also have a look at Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine (1956), set in 5th century Greece, in which there is another close male relationship – though I didn’t recognise it as sexual when I read it fifty years ago.  Miller is often compared to Renault.

 

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