Giving a voice to those who were – and, at times still are – the spoils of war
Pat Barker has long celebrated ‘ordinary’ people who are swept up in the making of history – which, sadly, is often the history of conflict. She does not forget that the lives of the untold millions matter, even if we don’t know their names
In this book, she goes for the jugular of very ancient conflicts indeed – the story told in The Iliad – we know the names of various kingly and warrior characters, but the women are few and far between. Helen, wife of Menelaus, captured by Paris,(did she run or was she abducted?) is probably the most recognisable name, reduced to that face that launched a thousand ships – as long long wars between Greece and Troy ensued
In this wonderful book The Silence of the Girls her central voice, the person whose story is followed, Is Briseis. Wife of a king, who was one of Troy’s allies (and of course, Briseis had no say in her choice of husband) when her husband’s kingdom is sacked by the Greeks – particularly Achilles, she becomes part of his booty. Her husband, her brothers, and all the males are automatically killed – including boy children. This is also the fate of women who have children in the womb – these might grow up to avenge their fathers in the fullness of time.
Other women are spoils, like material goods, to be shared by the victors. The high born may be the gift to commanders and kings, and the best that can be hoped for is to find favour. Otherwise, the women are there to be ‘enjoyed’ by the many.
Chryseis rescued from Agamemnon Joseph-Marie Vien circa 1780/1785
This is indeed a brutal and a harrowing book, but Barker does not just leave Briseis and others as just brutalised victims. Women lived through this kind of dire history, still having to find a way to make their own lives matter.
More than the story of battling kings, – Priam, Agamemnon – bloody warrior heroes – Hector, Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus – it is the women, the powerless, the ones without the fine heroic lays devoted to their stories – who occupy the foreground here. And Barker makes me believe that these, who have come to us only as names, might indeed have been truly as she imagines them.
Recounting Priam, king of Troy, in supplication for the return of the broken and humiliated body of his son, Briseis contrasts the power a defeated king may still wield, with the lives, the lack of power, of the women, even the most powerful, who are objects of ownership, in her society:
I do what no man before me has ever done. I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought:
And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers
She does of course not flinch from how these human spoils of war were treated – the women who ‘belonged’ to the vanquished were there to slake the sexual thirst of the army just as captured wine and livestock were there to slake their appetite for food and drink – but she does not focus on the blow by blow, the awful and graphic details of their treatment by the conquering army. How, in this world, did these women live.?What were their thoughts, their feelings, how did they adapt, how connect, how survive? Victims of war – but also individuals with histories – and also perhaps, desires for a future, perhaps even an imagination for the ending of endless war.
I recommend this, despite its awful subject matter, without reservation. Whilst steeped in the physical reality of those ancient times (she is marvellously visceral about what a battle encampment might have been like) the present, and the still far from equal lives of girls and women, in some parts of the world more obviously than in others, knocked insistently in my thoughts.
Books like this are wondrously important, wondrously imaginative, wondrously laying out myth and reality together
For those who know the story of the Iliad, repetition in this review would be unnecessary – but, more importantly, for those who don’t spoilers should not be revealed.
However, I cannot avoid this rather wonderful ‘preview opener’ a quote from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain’ which Barker quotes before her own novel begins :
“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask….”With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines…. “Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles…Begin where they first quarrelled, Agamemnon the King of men and great Achilles” And what are they quarrelling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war”
I received this as a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Like many, I had been overwhelmed and lacerated, by the reading of Powers first book, The Yellow Birds, detailing the experience of the war in Iraq. Powers had experienced that conflict, as a machine gunner. That powerful book was far from being any kind of glorification of war. Powers, a wonderful writer, pulls no punches, does not gloss over the awfulness of conflict, or the kinds of glorified lies countries tell themselves to encourage young men to enlist
A Shout in the Ruins, his second book, explores no less important, destructive, shaming themes which should be faced. He looks at racism, and its foundations in the history of slavery in the States, and the long shadow that has cast, and still casts.
Rawls could see up and down the old man’s arms. They were lined with mark after mark of whip and brine, a topography of the passage of time and pain one on top of the other, a map in miniature of ridgeline and ravine going up into his shirtsleeves in an uninterrupted pattern
This is a complex story, taking place over more than 100 years of American history. The central character is George, a quiet, reflective black man. And on his story, traced from the 1860s, George, now in his 90s. moving towards death (so his ‘present’ is the 1950s) is keen to unearth a mystery about his own origins, as an abandoned child. Those origins lie in the stories of those who had cared for him before he was ‘abandoned’ and why, indeed, abandonment happened. A story of slaves before the outbreak of war. In his 1950s present, American is still a segregated society, a society, effectively practising apartheid, in the South. And the continuing story of casual, unthinking, as well as deliberate racism continues beyond George’s death, in the later story of a young woman he meets, right at the end of his life, and her future, which includes someone damaged by one of America’s later conflicts
Whoever said a rifle on a wall was an opportunity for suspense must have been European. As if there would ever be a question of its getting fired or not in America. The gun goes off when the line gets crossed, and the line got crossed a long time ago, when we were naked and wandered the savannah and slept beneath the baobab trees. When is simply a matter of how long it takes to get it out of the holster, how long it takes the bullet to arrive. Perhaps days or weeks or months, perhaps one’s whole life, but these are questions of distance and trajectory, of time and physics, and not of possibility
This is an extremely difficult book to read at times, but it is one which I felt I had to read. As in Yellow Birds, punches are not pulled. Powers does not labour or over describe the awful violence of racism, rather, sentences are casually dropped in, rather like unexpected land mines, leaving the reader shocked and reeling. The throwaway information about a slave who had run away, and, on recapture, his ‘master’ deliberately damaged his feet, so the young man could not ever run away again, but would only be able to shuffle and hobble – still work, but not run
This is a deeply, deeply, despair filled book. There are wonderfully drawn, complex character, some are of a repellent, vicious nature, many are normally flawed, going along almost unthinkingly with the evil which may be the way a society is structured, others question the wrong, and there are those who are like beacons of what it might mean to strive to be ‘human-kind’ But the lives of those the reader cares about will inevitably also be lives that experience pain, loss, grief
Another major theme is the importance of home and community. The book opens with the destruction of property and community by those seeking to ‘develop prime sites’ and spools back to earlier acts of destruction and violence towards community and home, done by those whose only care is the acquisition of personal wealth and power. Powers makes sure we are aware he is not just writing about America’s past, but about all our presents.
I had some reservations. As I found, at times, with Yellow Birds, which changed points of view a lot – whose story was being followed, at any point – I wished he had been a little more linear. At times there are just too many characters to keep track of, and the narrative might have been pruned, shaped more, to allow trajectory of story to be clearer, the strength of his writing itself to shine out more. There was also a question I was left with, which was unanswered, part of the quest George himself was trying to get to the bottom of, but, then, as I continued to think about this book, long after I had finished reading it – life is also full of little pockets of mystery which never do completely get solved
I received this as a copy for review from the publishers, via NetGalley
It has taken some time for me to write a review, as I needed some time, and distance, to evaluate my rating. The length of time the book stayed with me has meant that the reservations during reading itself, retreated
Ancient of Lays, vibrantly and powerfully brought to life
Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, was a standout, stunning read. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and delight that I embarked on this, her second, Circe.
Within a few sentences I settled back with a huge sigh of surrendering relief, as it was clear from the off that the very high bar Miller had set for herself with her working of the story of Achilles was going to be equalled by Circe.
I can’t say this book is better than that one, or that one than this. In truth, she has sung another magical song for Circe.
There won’t be any surprises in the narrative, not for anyone enamoured of Ancient Greek – what do we call it, mythology? history?
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, out powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride
Here again is part of the story laid out in Homer
Circe is in sharpest relief as part of Odysseus’ task/journey. She is the daughter of Helios, one of the Titans – older, more archaic and unpredictable gods, who were overthrown by the Olympians. Circe, who transgressed in some way, ends up banished to an island. Her story connects with Odysseus as she is a witch/some kind of punitive goddess, and turned Odysseus’ sailors, and other sailors, into swine. Odysseus ‘tricks’ her, or is wise enough to be alert to how her spell happens (just don’t drink wine offered by witches)
Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away
The Wine of Circe, Edward Burne-Jones
But there is a lot more to Circe’s connections with these ancient lays, Jason, Medea, Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, Prometheus, Daedalus, Icarus and more, all have stories which touch hers
Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two
Miller, who I think is shaping up – if not exceeding, the carrying of Mary Renault’s mantle, breathes vibrant, relevant life into these tales of long ago.
She is immersed, as someone who went the academic route into the study of classical Greece, in her research. But, she is a transformative, magical, inspired writer. Either she knows the spells to get the Muses to descend, or she has inherited Circe’s special magical gift of ‘transformation’ because this gripping, intense, lush story springs off the page, and I have to say this ‘real’ world felt a flatter, colour leached one, compared to the enduring power of those classical times
Beware the Moly – like all skilled witches Circe is a dab hand with plants for good and ill
I really cannot recommend this highly enough. Narrative, character, thought provoking substance and a skill with the craft of writing itself, all are superb.
Let me say what sorcery is not. It is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that it can fail, as gods do not
I have to say that those Ancient Greeks have exerted a strong pull on me since childhood – mythic, archetypical, speaking to powerful collective unconscious depths. They are so much more than ‘fantasy’ And Miller, as a writer, gets those hairs up on the back of the neck shivers in this reader, echoing what some of those ancient sites in Greece do.
Another powerful woman who should not be messed with – Janelle Monae, Django Jane
Circe, in Miller’s telling, might easily be a Sister. Even though there is ONE bit of skulduggery against a prettier nymph, but, oh she realises her fault
I was delighted to read this as an ARC from Netgalley.
There is historical background to Alma Katsu’s novel, The Hunger, which is based on ‘The Donner Party’ – or, more properly, ‘The Donner-Reed Party’, a large group of pioneers, led by, at different times George Donner and James F. Reed, who set out, in May 1846, from Springfield Illinois, to travel to California. Initially there were 500 wagons, many families taking several wagons, filled with household possessions as well as supplies and cattle for food, as they were effectively moving home to a new State. The pioneers were mostly families, but with some single men, and most of the pioneers had a range of reasons for making this challenging journey. Some, inevitably were escaping past mistakes, crimes and misdemeanours, some looking for the prospect of creating a better life for their young families.
The journey was one which had been successfully done before, by others, and initially the Donner Party were doing fine.. A fatal mistake was made, however, to pursue a shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff, from Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Unfortunately Lansford Hastings, the promoter of this supposed short cut, had been – economical – with its suitability.
Great Salt Lake Desert Crossing
The party encountered severe problems with weather and terrain, firstly when the Hastings Cutoff proved not to be a short cut, landing the group in a parching desert crossing of the Great Salt Lake Desert, meaning that they joined the Oregon trail, making a push over the Sierra Nevada mountains, late in the season at the end of October, becoming trapped by heavy snowfall blocking the pass. Stuck in the high mountains, by the time rescue came less than half of the group of just under 90 who had set out on that final push were still alive. Others had not chosen to follow the route, or had left the wagon train earlier, There were also several rescue attempts which had resulted in some of the rescuers perishing. Food supplies ran out, and the survivors, or some of them, had resorted to cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead companions
Sierra Nevada Mountains
Katsu, who writes well, really well, has taken the names of the real pioneers, but has created her own story around this, with an imaginative, horror explanation of what happened. Although for me the horror aspects are the least interesting parts of the book, having recently read Algernon Blackwood’s truly chilling short story The Wendigo, based on the beliefs of certain Native American tribes, I was more willing to be rattled by the fears of ‘this is a bad place’ energy being expressed by some in Katsu’s story who are sensitive to the energy of place.
Stumps of trees cut at the Alder Creek site by members of the Donner Party, photograph taken in 1866. The height of the stumps indicates the depth of snow. Wiki Commons
I always have certain problems with inventing stories (particularly bad ones) for real characters who once lived, and must confess to a certain unease here too, particularly when dodgy pasts and shady motivations and characterisations of one kind or another, are assigned to real people, though it certainly seems that some of those who are most harshly dealt with in her book were, indeed, those with stains laid against them by survivors
Reading the long Wiki entry, and a couple of other sources, on what is a gripping tale, with well drawn characters – particularly some of the women, really given flesh, integrity and stories – she has researched well, and the imaginative twist she inserts is one which even could have a scientific basis, given knowledge of Kuru and other transmissible spongiform encephalopathy diseases, associated not just with cannibalism, but where one species eats another which is not its ‘normal’ diet – BSE, Creutzfeld Jacob, etc a better known example of this.
I recommend this strongly. It is a very well told, well paced tale, with strong characterisation, moving and horrific. Just don’t read it (or part of it) late at night or close to meal times.
I received this as a review copy via Amazon Vine UK
Death, fittingly and heartbreakingly stalks the pages of Helen Dunmore’s last book. The author, whose work gave so much pleasure over the years to many, had terminal cancer, and Birdcage Walk would be her final novel.
Birdcage Walk has a slightly curious structure, meant, I think, to take us away from obsession with what happened next, and to keep us aware of where we are heading towards.
A man of today, recently bereaved, looking in some ways for distraction and a way to fill his time, becomes interested in an old gravestone which hints that it belonged to a writer, of whom there is no record. He begins to look at an earlier history of Bristol (the setting of the book)
The gravestone belonged to a woman who was not just ‘a writer’ but a revolutionary thinker – the time is that of the French Revolution. The narrator of this book is her daughter, Lizzie. Her mother, Julia Fawkes, might almost be another Mary Wollstonecroft, and her second husband, Augustus, another Godwin. Lizzie, though, is not married to a revolutionary poet. Her husband John Diner Tredevant is in his own way a visionary : one ablaze with the idea of building, property and capital.
Dunmore’s book is a book of ideas and ideals, a book of strong and conflicting relationship, and also a thriller – though I suspect the reader will identify quite early where things are heading
Guillotine, Execution of Marie Antoinette. 1793 (unknown artist)
Visions of a better society for all based on those heady, revolutionary ideas which rocked the stability of society in this country and in France are set against the ideas of order and security. And the creeping in of doubts as some of the initial idealism of ‘liberté égalité fraternité’ – not to mention sororité – meets the fact that a revolution is rarely bloodless :
I could not explain it even to myself, that a man might set in motion such a lever and put an end to the world that lived inside another’s head. It seemed so monstrous and yet it could be done so easily. It made killing as simple as pouring a cup of water, There was no danger to the killer, or necessity to wrestle with a fellow creature who would fight for his life as hard as you fought to extinguish it” …….
“Think of it …To kill another human being is like crossing a river by a bridge which is then swept away behind you. You can never go back again
The central relationship in this book is that between visionary Julia Fawkes and her beloved daughter. Lizzie has fallen for a man who may not be worthy of her, and wants a conventional, obedient wife rather than the free thinker she has been raised to be. This is also a novel about how love can break, as much as make, a person.
I saw clearly now that it was not so easy to step out of the life which held us. No matter how far we went, we would take with us not only our selves but all the ghosts of our lives.
The novel is also one which is full of psychological tension. There are several ways an author might choose to create tension, each of which can work well, if properly done. Duncan means the reader, I think, to make the links pretty quickly between a shocking event which is described very early on in the eighteenth century section and who the people involved might be. So it is not the reader and their direct need to know ‘what happens next’ which is the setting on the tension knot. Rather, we are immediately lobbed the ‘something major happened’ in order that we should solve that ‘something’ Our tension is rather for the central character in the book, how they change, what changes them, and how they will make the connections as they come to understand what we already are sure of. It’s an empathetic tension she is creating
The Avon Gorge, looking out over Clifton c 1820, Francis Danby
One small cavil, but not enough to want to dock a star. The first person narrator of the historical section is not fluent in French. Yet, there is a conversation which takes place entirely in French, where she faithfully can recount everything a French speaking character says, even though she only picks out a couple of forcefully spoken and repeated words (which she asks someone else to translate) I have no problems with the forcefully spoken and repeated words but would defy anyone, spoken to a language which they were pretty lacking fluency in, to be able to make sound and memory sense of it! A moment which felt inauthentic, and jarred.
Finally, in a poignant afterword, Dunmore explains her fascination with small, hidden lives, and their effect on history, and her intention in this novel – which she began before knowing her own terminal diagnosis
Only a very few people leave traces in history, or even bequeath family documents to their descendants. Most have no money to memorialise themselves, and lack even a gravestone to mark their existence. Women’s lives, in particular, remain largely unrecorded. But even so, did they not shape the future? Through their existences, through their words and acts, their gestures, jokes, caresses, strength and courage – and through the harms they did as well – they changed the lives around them and formed the lives of their descendants
I received this as a review copy from Netgalley, and read it during my 2 month reviewing absence. It was with pleasure that I read it again, as I did want to be able to write a review which expressed my appreciation of the book, properly
A big, old-fashioned, absorbing historical narrative – America in Depression and At War
Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach follows the story of two different tranches of the American immigrant experience, and is set during the Depression and the Second World War.
There are 3 stories followed, which interlink with each other through Anna’s story. At the start of the novel Anna Kerrigan is nearly 12, a young girl idolising her father, and close to her mother and her sick sister. Father Eddie struggles, as so many working men did, at this time, to make a living. He has lost much in the crash and is now working as a kind of muscle for a longshoreman union official. Keeping the family together, particularly with the medical needs of Anna’s sister Lydia, is not easy.
Eddie has decided to take a chance on getting more lucrative work – but this must come at a price, as he intends to offer his expertise to Dexter Styles, a man with mob connections, who has hidden his Italian background, and is riding high in society, happily married. The family he has married into is old money, established class. Everyone knows he is somehow connected, still to ‘a shadow government, a shadow country..A tribe. A clan’ He is though someone who is good at subterfuge, though there are plenty of rumours about him, and as long as no one looks too closely at the source of his wealth, and is just happy enough with that wealth, he, and they, will get along fine.
Eddie has taken Anna along to his job ‘interview’ with Dexter, as knowing something about a man’s family gives him a certain edge and information. And Eddie will be offered employment
Egan then takes a forward jump, and we, like Anna, are in the position of ‘something happened’ – but we don’t quite know what. All we know is that at some point, some years ago, Eddie disappeared. Anna still holds a memory of the mysterious Mr Styles, and the glamour of his house, on that day Eddie took her along. It is now Anna’s job to keep the family together. America is now at war. War has created opportunities for young women, working in fields never open to them before. Anna is now one of a female workforce employed in Brooklyn’s Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting tiny parts for battleships. She has a better dream – the desire to be a diver, to inspect and repair vessels underwater.
This whole section of Anna’s story, her struggle to work in an area thought unsuitable for a woman, was particularly fascinating.
There is also a more conventional story beginning – a chance encounter between Anna and Styles in a nightclub – she recognises him, but he has no idea who she is, especially as when she introduces herself she gives a false last name – a story which will be in part a detective story, and in part a love story. Anna wants to find out the truth about her father’s disappearance, and the mysterious Mr Styles is a sensible place to start
Anna’s story, Dexter’s story – and also the story of Eddie’s disappearance. And it is also the story of capital, labour, and the American Dream
I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever….Not the Romans. Not the Carolingians, Not Genghis Khan or the Tatars or Napoleon’s France….How is that possible you ask. Because our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible
High money and low money, muscle, graft, honest labour and labour less honest, corruption, class, race and sexual prejudice – it’s a big canvas.
I did not get to read Egan’s Pulitzer, A Visit From The Goon Squad (though I am minded to, now) That was, I understand, a far more experimental/unusual structure. This is not, though we do have the 3 voices, and the 3 stories, but the structure is a conventional narrative. I found it a fascinating read, particularly because I am drawn to books which engage with describing hard physical work – stuff of craft and muscle.
I could not resist adding this YouTube first part upload of John Adams’ magnificent Harmonielehre, a version conducted by Simon Rattle. The spur to its composition was the idea of a great tanker rising through the air. As I read the physicality of the Naval Yard workplace sections, Adam’s amazing piece, with its incredible opening, was in my mind’s ear
I received this as an ARC from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, via Netgalley. Gratefully.
Gothic, serpentine, sinuous narrative, rippling with interest and vitality
Sarah Perry’s 1890s set novel is one of huge vitality, imagination and verve. In some ways her delight in language, her playfulness, and the exuberance of her story telling remind me of Sarah Waters in her earlier outings which were also set in slightly earlier Victorian times : Fingersmith and Affinity (1860s and 1870s)
The Essex Serpent has achieved both commercial and critical success, and I had held off from it, fearful that this was just marketing spin. Eventually surrendering, it was clear from the off its plaudits are well deserved. Perry has crafted a most enjoyable read. She tells a good story, creates memorable characters and is also writing informatively and thoughtfully ‘about stuff’ . Principally social issues around privilege and the lack of it, the conflict between religion and science, and female emancipation, at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Occasionally I did feel she created one or two over complicated issues (the autistic son) plus the odd moment where things felt just a little out of time and modern – a bit too much to-ing and fro-ing and travelling between coastal Essex and London : journey times would have been considerably longer and a swift visit to the British Museum Reading Room in order to get some information to enhance a Sunday sermon seemed a little twentyfirst century casual commute rather than 1890s.
Perry’s aim has been to show a different view of Victorian society, and, particularly its women, focusing more on the unusual, radical, progressive elements rather than the mainstream who might have lived within prim, submissive conformity within a paternalist culture.
Cora Seaborne has recently been widowed. Her deceased, much older husband is/was one of the few really unpleasant characters in Perry’s novel. Sadistic, controlling and, frankly just a powerful, influential bully, he had captivated Cora when she was impressionable and young. One of Perry’s strengths is that she gives the reader enough information to make sense of people and their history, but does not get caught up in needing to over-explain everything. Hence, the reader is left uneasy about what appears to be a branding mark inflicted on Cora, and our imaginations will provide further shadowy questions about a toxic marriage whose specific parameters do not need to be gratuitously spelt out.
Colchester Earthquake of 1883 – ripples on in this book
Cora, despite the endured abuse, has a keen and enquiring mind, and thinks for herself, whatever external strictures were placed on her by her thankfully now dead spouse. She is captivated by science, by Darwin, by Mary Anning. Now a woman of independent means, she can choose to turn reading about the natural sciences into practical investigation. She is a strong female presence, not a submissive or surrendering one, and intends to follow the star of her intelligence and passion for knowledge, debate and discourse. She is not a beauty according to the standards of her time, but her unusual vitality and independence of thought do make her attractive to others similarly unconventional, and free-thinking
you cannot always keep yourself away from things that hurt you. We all wish that we could, but we cannot: to live at all is to be bruised
Martha is a similarly unusual individual in the Seaborne household. She is Nanny to Francis, Cora’s autistic son, and is a radical socialist, a follower of Eleanor Marx, passionately concerned with righting the wrongs of the disadvantaged and dispossessed, with a particular interest in provision of social housing for the poor – initiatives like Peabody date from the 1860s. Also dancing attendance on Cora is a young doctor, radical in his field, interesting in exploring cutting edge (literally) developments, particularly in surgery. Dr Luke Garrett, and his more conventional kind hearted friend and colleague George Spencer are the means by which the reader learns much that is fascinating about late nineteenth century medicine. Friendship itself, between the sexes as well as within the sexes is a major theme of this novel. In almost every relationship it is the mental, and emotional connections which are the lasting and transforming ones rather than sexual connections. Sex, whether expressed overtly or covertly is a powerful driver also in the novel, but it is friendship which provides endurance.
Woodcut from 1669 pamphlet : Guardian Review by M.John Harrison
And so to the title – The Essex Serpent takes Cora and her entourage (and us) out of London and to an imaginary location in Essex’s coastal waters. There have been, by all accounts, mysterious sightings of a ‘sea monster’ (one assumes some kind of oceanic Loch Ness Monster). Dark and subterranean rumours about the monster surface, laced with symbolism and biblical portents, terrifying and titillating the local population in equal measure.
The local vicar, Will Ransome, a man of sure, and at the same time, rational faith, is determined to stress the importance of living a good, moral life through practical ‘love your neighbour’ Christianity. He espouses Christianity with a social conscience, and strives to be a moral compass for his flock, encouraging living through kindliness and compassion without appeals to the fear of hellfire or the fevered prophecies of the Book of Revelations. Some of his flock gravitate far more naturally towards that gothic outlook.
His was not the kind of religion lived only in rule and rubric, as if he were a civil servant and God the permanent secretary of a celestial government department. He felt his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars: when faith failed, as it sometimes did, he saw the heavens declare the glory of God and heard the stones cry out
Cora and Will, both naturally enquiring and subtly thoughtful have divergent views about the world of matter, but neither is as closed minded as each initially supposed. A curious and strong friendship forms between them, with argument and disagreement uniting them as much as it divides them. Both are extremely keen to solve the ‘mystery’ of The Essex Serpent, and both hope that their own theories will be right. In many ways, Cora and Will are ‘soulmates’ precisely because intelligence, subtlety and warm-heartedness mean they can discourse with each other about matters which can’t be understood by others. Will’s beautiful, ethereal wife Stella is loved by all – including Cora, who forms a firm friendship with her. She is a well-rounded, more interesting version of the sweet ‘child-wife’ staple of some Victorian fiction – Dora in David Copperfield.
Perry’s book has been severally described as a historical novel, a romance, Victorian gothic, and a novel of ideas. All of the above.
On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels, Autumn fends off the diligent winter: it’s a warm clear-eyed month, with a barbarous all-too-much beauty. On Aldwinter common the oaks shine copper in the sunblast; the hedgerows are scarlet with berries. The swallows have gone, but down on the saltings swans menace dogs and children in the creeks.
She writes beautifully, but does not write indulgently beautifully.
Perhaps part of the afterword, in my Kindle edition shows best what Perry aims for. And succeeds in doing, in my opinion
My ambition as a writer is – more than anything else, I think – to give joy and pleasure to readers; to convey to them the love I feel for my characters, and the places they walk, and to have them feel what my characters feel.
With her third novel, the Edwardian set The Wild Air, Rebecca Mascull has done what she did in her two earlier novels – found a way to hook the reader’s heart to that of her central character, so that the reader absolutely cares about their journey, roots for them and, in this case, I was left feeling quite violent towards the prejudice and spite encountered by our quiet, shy, plain protagonist: one with the courage of a lion, hidden beneath the exterior of a mouse.
It is the first decade of the twentieth century. Cordelia (Della) Dobbs is the third daughter of a bitter, retired, theatrical star. Her charismatic father was seriously injured in an automobile accident, and his stage days are over. Della’s older sisters are beauties, one has gone on to success in the theatre, the other has made a good marriage. Her younger brother is favoured and golden. Della is the family mouse within a vibrantly extrovert, flamboyant set. A bit of a disappointment she does not have the pulchritude, the talent, the artistic creativity, the obvious personality, wit or intelligence to shine out in this family where everyone possesses at least one of these gifts.
Della likes quietness. In a family of extroverts where everyone is glittering and shining all together, there is no point in trying to outshine, or be loud enough or flamboyant enough to command attention. Della stays quiet, helpful, useful. But she does have her own talent – practical, kinaesthetic, a listening gift and passion for mechanics : how things work. Unfortunately, the time is not yet ready for female engineers. And, there is something else. Della is fortunate to come under the protective wing of her great-aunt Betty, newly returned from the States to her North East origins. Betty, a plain-speaking, adventurous woman with a similarly ungraceful, unfeminine appearance, had set out, aged 40, with her younger brother, an engineer, to the New World. Betty had married a practical man, and lived happy with him until his death brought her homewards. And Betty was fascinated by the new challenge and daring of flying. She had seen the Wright Brothers. Betty, with her strength, earthiness and willingness to ignore the constructs of graceful, eye-fluttering femininity, instead, to find her own ways towards being a strong person, a strong female person, becomes a mentor and encourager, helping Della to find her own ‘star’. Della is in love with the idea of flying. And female aviatrixes, though rare, are there to be aspirational role models
Hélène Dutrieu, aviatrix, 1911
I have to admit that my surrender to Della was not as ‘upon the instant’ as it had been to her earlier ‘sisters’. Feisty Adeliza Golding, from Mascull’s first book, The Visitors, and the wonderfully intelligent scientist, Dawnay Price, from The Song Of The Sea Maid, eccentric, flamboyant personalities both, had snaffled my interest in their stories from the off.
So, courageous for Mascull to explore this far quieter girl and woman, this introvert. Della proves, though, to be ‘still waters run deep’ She is the person in the corner of the room you don’t notice at a party, the mousy one, until by chance you discover this overlooked one has a wealth of story to tell, and a life of more strangeness and fascination than you could dream of.
One of the many facets of Mascull’s writing, which I admire hugely, is her heart and her kindness. There is tenderness here, a kind of respect for the integrity of her invented characters. She is not someone who seems to force her characters into some structure and shape. More, a sense of the author’s creation revealing themselves. Della, true to her quieter nature, takes time also to reveal herself to the reader – but she is absolutely authentic, both in her quietness and reticence, and in where she soars (literally!) when she discovers where her true North lies.
Lanoe Hawker’s (First World War flying ace) No 1611 Bristol Scout
I read, a year or so ago, a fictionalised biography of another aviatrix, Beryl Markham. What disturbed me about that book, was that the author had to some extent played fast and loose with the facts of Markham’s life, for her ‘faction’. Something which leaves me with a kind of distaste. It is, I think, another mark of Mascull’s integrity that though she might take specific achievements and stories from the history of real people as a starting point or inspiration for her fictions, she does not mangle the authenticity of real lives for her fiction. Della is not Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson or any other ‘real’ aviatrix, bent into Mascull’s story. Della is Mascull’s genesis, but she grows into her own shape. Something magical happens when an author so clearly ‘listens’ to the arisingness of their creation.
If you want your heroes to be full of ‘flashing eyes, floating hair’ and mesmerise you with their magnetic charisma, Della may not do, but my advice would be, stay patient and wait for her to find herself, to reveal who she is, as she discovers that for herself.
Now, I will not deny that there were some aspects that I struggled with. The book has a prologue, dated 1918, but the sequential story begins in 1909, with Della in her mid-teens so, clearly the First War is going to be a major factor. I will not reveal spoilers of course, but there are sequences of some letters, written by a couple of major characters in the book, which had my disbelief unsuspended, and thinking ‘surely………..this could not have got past the censors’ Mascull is, however, meticulous in research and, for the benefit of the interested reader tells us what is true, and where she might have stretched truth into invention. I was quite startled to discover that whilst of course censors would always do their work on anything which might reveal position, military details etc, there were letters which did get home where soldiers did reveal their fear, grief, and despair to loved ones. Although most letters were much more ‘chipper’ than the writers felt, in order to avoid alarming their loved ones, some were far more honest, and escaped censoring.
The beautiful, elegant, Blackburn Monoplane
My other challenge is that The Wild Air is much more ‘Romantic Historical’ than Mascull’s first two books, and romance is more central to the trajectory of the story. One of the genre shelves I never visit in my local library is ‘Romance’ though of course relationships, including romantic relationships, tend to be a crucial part of many if not most of the books I love. There is a very pure, whole relationship which is a central one. Perhaps it is a mark of a certain cynicism in me that felt a little like ‘Mills and Boon’ about that, and I am more comfortable reading relationships which have a dysfunctionality. I needed to lay that cynicism aside, Mascull, as said earlier, is an honest writer, and allows her characters their honesty too. I had been more comfortable with the more intellectual, greater thinking complexity of Adeliza and Dawnay, which inevitably gave a certain – tangle – to their relationships. The central driving relationship in this book is where there is a great expressed emotional honesty happening, and perhaps this leads to a clearer trajectory and clearer mutuality. The conflicts here are conflicts caused externally, not internal conflicts. And, I guess war itself creates a kind of ‘cut to the chase’ intensity.
Mascull is a wonderful crafter of language itself. Now, curiously, I found myself underlining less ‘soaring prose’ in this book than I had in her other two. And, reflecting on this, I think this was also the expression of an authenticity in her writing – Adeliza and Dawnay were both highly expressive characters of brilliance, wit, flamboyance, so of course they are going to express themselves in stunning fashion. Della, as noted is a quiet person. She speaks far more plainly, less elliptically, less in metaphor. So, of course, even though Mascull is ‘third person’ narration, the think through will be through that quieter, more plainly speaking persona :
Della talked aloud to herself. She did that when it was marvellous and she revelled in the complete wonder of flying, the secret joy of it. Or when it was bad. When the mist came down or the wind got up something terrible and she was fighting the weather in order to come back alive
Adeliza and Dawnay would, I’m sure have expressed the above in fizzing expression, I would have been underlining passages of beauty all through. Della does not have that voice. Again, I come back to thinking about Mascull, who, here, does not astound the reader with her own beautiful, poetic, expressive voice – because it would not be Della’s.
So, having thought through what I mainly loved, and what (and why) I struggled with, I can only raise my 4 ½ stars to 5. Mascull has done it again.
I had one slightly strange thought, an elemental one, as I read this : Mascull’s first creation, Adeliza, found her passion in earth – deaf-blind, it is initially through engagement with what grows – and through ether, the spirit, intangible world. Dawnay connects through water, for Della, that earthed, practical soul, the growth and destiny is airborne. What next……..I do hope not an arsonist!
I was extremely happy to receive an arc, via the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, shortly before Christmas. A fantastic start to my 2017 reading year
However………as the book will be published on May 4th, I have held back publication of my review till towards the end of April. In fact, this week marks a blog tour of Rebecca Mascull’s book, and I am eagerly looking forward to other bloggers’ impressions. Mascull’s writing always presents possibilities for interested and passionate reader engagement.
I shall be searching out other reviews and they should appear as clickable links in the ‘Catching My Beady Eye’ widget, on the right hand margin
(Alas, I have discovered that ‘other’blogging platforms’ don’t easily transfer over to the Post I Like Widget, so you will have to find your way to other reviews yourselves, from the addresses given above!)
Robert Harris’ Enigma succeeds on all the counts I had for it – an absorbing, immersive, thriller; one which though a fiction had enough basis in reality for it to appear an authentic possibility; to be educative, informative and clear about the technology without either sending this reader to sleep, refusing to grapple with the nuts and bolts, or employing the implausible devices bad writers use to educate their readers. And, more than this, I wanted the combination of frantic need to turn pages with a wonderfully structured narrative, interesting characters and, above all admirable writing!
Harris delivers all – not to mention twists I didn’t see coming but, once they occurred I rather hit my forehead wondering how I could have NOT suspected and predicted them. Those are the very best twists – not ones which are just rather crude writerly devices, but twists which make complete sense AND are missed by the reader – particularly in a book which in the end is about a top secret mission, so every character in the book is rather in the dark on the whole picture, and those that aren’t in the dark are doing their level best to cover their own tracks! Twisty, turny puzzles and a mounting sense of urgency are the background of the real story and setting – Bletchley Park and the cracking of the Enigma code in World War Two – which Harris constructs his wonderful fiction around
Enigma machine (not decoding machine) Alessandro Nassiri – Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci” source -Wiki.
It is 1943. Alan Turing is not, at this point, in Bletchley Park, but is in America (he assisted in the construction of the famous ‘bombes’ used to crack the codes, for Bell Labs in the States from November 42 to March 43) This ‘absence’ of the known, real figure gives Harris the novelist freedom to keep known and major history in place but have a different cast of characters, without the problems involved in creating untruthful fictions out of real lives.
His central character, Tom Jericho, is a young Cambridge mathematician, one of those recruited as one of the Bletchley code-breakers. Jericho is presently back in Cambridge, having suffered some kind of break-down through overwork during an earlier, intense time at Bletchley. He has been sent back to recuperate.
Jericho, one of Turing’s students, has been instrumental in a major decoding operation. It’s not only the stress of working against deadlines to crack the codes used by German U Boats as they targeted Allied shipping which caused Jericho’s breakdown, but a love affair gone wrong.
German U Boat
Inexplicably to those at Bletchley, the Germans suddenly and dramatically change their known patterns of coding. With America about to send fleets of ships, containing supplies to Britain, and U Boats patrolling the sea lanes, it is essential that the codes are re-broken, and Jericho is summoned back to Bletchley, where he half longs to be and half dreads to be, not least because of the pain of the ending of his love affair.
Harris absolutely winds up, tighter and ever tighter, a feverish atmosphere, – working against a dreadfully ticking clock as the likelihood of U Boats finding the American fleet increases, hour by hour. Britain in blackout, edible food increasingly rationed, and dreadful moral calls always lurking – if codes are cracked, how far and how quickly can the Allies save immediate lives in danger, against the fact that such actions will alert Germany to the fact codes have been cracked and lead to radical changes again. And what caused the sudden previous change anyway? Something is not quite right at Bletchley Park…..
This is a brilliant thriller, and Harris looks at wider considerations than just the urgency of code-cracking during the war. It also has much to reveal about class politics, gender politics and the sometimes uneasy relationship between Britain and America, linked to Britain’s class-conscious society. Many of the people who came to Bletchley or were recruited into the Secret Services were old-guard, boys-club, those who had come from the ‘best’ public school backgrounds, into the ‘best Universities, and were ‘people like us’ But the war also needed people ‘not like us’ who had the requisite skills in cryptanalysis, the kind of mathematical ability and conceptional thinking which this needed, who might have gone to the ‘best’ Universities on those merits. And there might be others, ‘not like us’ at all in fact, alien to the whole old boy network – women – who might also have the kinds of minds for the work.
Hut 6, Bletchley Park, War Years
Bletchley Park recruited many women, and certainly some of them must have been hugely frustrated by being utilised well below their intellectual abilities, confined to less demanding, more lowly (but necessary) clerical tasks, simply due to gender. Some of the women would have had sharper, more astute minds for the work than some of their male section heads. And equally undoubtedly the power differentials between men-in-charge and women in lowlier positions would also have been used and abused.
Harris creates two wonderful leading characters, who come into conflict and into a working accord with each other – Tom Jericho himself and the understandably resentful, bitter, highly intelligent Hester Wallace, the house-mate of his lost love, the impeccably upper-class Claire Romilly. It is quite refreshing to see a complex, layered relationship of trust, distrust, dislike, respect and understanding between a male and female, which has nothing to do with a sexual relationship between them, explored.
By all accounts the less than satisfying sounding film-of-the-book did an unnecessary sex-up. The film maker, or possibly eyes-on-the-bucksters of raising finances, took the decision to create a love-interest between Jericho and Hester, thus negating the more interesting dynamic which understands that not every male/female relationship needs sex as its glue.
A highly recommended, immersive, well-written and intellectually stimulating page-turner. It had me reading far too late into the night, and waking far too early before dawn to pick up again and read further
And, an edit – better late than never, I posted before finding the pingback links to Fiction Fan’s review of the book which made me determined to get and read it, and quickly, and also of the film of the book, which made me equally determined to AVOID viewing! Hopefully I have got my pings in before she notices the missing credits!
American History through Chinese and Chinese-American eyes.
Peter Ho Davies The Fortunes is a mainly American set account of the Chinese American experience, told through 4 different viewpoints, over more than 150 years, starting with the building of the railways, opening up Goldrush routes in California in the 1860s, and ending with the experience of wealthy childless couples in the market for unwanted babies from less wealthy nations – in this case, as a result of China’s ‘One Child’ policy, and the less favoured status of girls.
Ho’s book is extremely well written, but, covering as it does the experience of what it means to be an immigrant – or even to be second generation, but of mixed ethnicity, – it is a remarkably depressing and distressing read, particularly at this time of turmoil and casual, not to mention not-so-casual, evidence of racial hatred and distrust as part of the water table.
The Fortunes (which has a title page subtitle of ‘Tell It Slant’) is beautifully structured in four sections. Each story is set in a different time and place, seemingly disconnected though there are nods to the previous experiences, and 3 of the stores feature real people, though Ho Davies makes it clear this is a fictionalised interpretation. There is a satisfying framing device.
The first section, Gold, is the story of the railroad and the Goldrush. Ah Ling is the son of a ‘saltwater girl’ a prostitute from Hong Kong and a ‘white ghost’, her probably British protector. The reader is battered from the start from everyday racism – both within China itself, as Ah Ling is a Tanka, reviled by the Han Chinese, and then, after he is sold to be a laundry boy to ‘Uncle Ng’ in San Francisco, the blanket racism towards ‘chinks’. We are reminded also, that whatever the experiences suffered by men, the status of Chinese women was even lower. Racially abused, sexually abused. The laundry Ah Ling works at is also a brothel, and Ah Ling, as a young boy, has his eyes opened by ‘Little Sister’ – who of course lacks even her own name, described only by family relationship:
How can you hate your own people”
“How? I tell you how! You know who sold me to Ng?” She paused to catch her breath. “My father! You know why? So he could send a brother to Gold Mountain to make the family fortune.” She nodded heavily. “That’s right. Chinamen love gold more than girls.
Silver follows the story of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star from the 1920’s onwards, whose career covered both silent film, talkies and stage. This section is structured almost like a silent film, with short chapters with headers in capital letters, as if they were scene titles
THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME
Turned down for the role of a lifetime – O-Lan in The Good Earth, a Chinese female lead; how many of those will she ever see? – and turned down for a white actress. It’s a public humiliation, a famous snub. A loss of face, she’s still Chinese enough to think.
She’d been tipped for the role in the press for years; “born to play it,” they said. It was what she’s been waiting for all this time. But she’d known she wouldn’t get it as soon as they cast Paul Muni, Scarface himself, in the lead. The Hays Code forbade the portrayal of interracial relations on-screen, even when white actors were playing in yellowface.
Jade, the third section, is based on the story of Vincent Chin:
if you remember it a all, if you were around in the eighties, say, what you remember is a Chinese guy being beaten to death in Detroit by two white auto workers who mistook him for a Japanese. This at the height of the import scare, when Japanese manufacturers were being blamed for the collapse of the Big Three U.S. auto companies.
Maybe you remember it happened outside a club where the Chinese guy – actually a Chinese American named Vincent Chin – was celebrating his bachelor party. Maybe you remember he was buried on what should have been his wedding day.
But perhaps you thought it was just an urban legend, a bad joke come to life
The final story, Pearl, concerns a middle class couple, Chinese American John Ling, teaching university students, and his wife Nola, also a teacher, in their mid-thirties, with a history of difficult and failed pregnancies. They are part of a group of other couples with similar difficulties, going to China to adopt a baby.
Ho Davies, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, is British born, to Welsh and Chinese parents, though he now lives in the States and is also a University lecturer in Creative Writing.
This is, as stated at the beginning, an emotionally difficult read, but a recommended one. He writes very well, his characters are clearly delineated, and complex. It left me with lots to think about, and distressing matters to feel about, particularly within the context of many world events, at this time, and a resurgence of ‘populist’ parties with simplistic foci for ‘blame’
I received this as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published on 25th August in Hard Cover and on Kindle in the UK, but curiously, Statesiders will have to wait until September 6th for HardCover or Audible, with, at the moment, no Kindle version listing. Curious, because Ho Davies now lives in the States, and this is set for the most part there.
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