Hat Trick In Three
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
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.
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!)