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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

I haven’t read Maggie O’Farrell before, even though her books have been recommended by various book friends. When I looked at the “best books of the year” lists, Hamnet struck me as one of the least depressing. Which is ironic since it’s about Shakespeare’s only son, who, we are all well aware, died. No spoiler — every review talks about how this book is about grief, and that is one of the few certain facts of Shakespeare’s life, that his son died as a child.

O’Farrell presents Shakespeare as misunderstood and mistreated by his family, a teenager who meets Agnes (also called Anne) Hathaway, similarly misunderstood, harangued by her stepmother, both suspect and sought out because of her talent with herbal remedies and her gift of being able to predict or sense what people are thinking or will do. O’Farrell presents their marriage as a sanctuary for both of them.

But as much as the book is about Agnes and her relationship with her mostly absent husband, it’s also about the loss of Hamnet and his presence in the family’s lives after. The scenes where Hamnet and his twin sister Judith are playing and suddenly she feels “unwell” and Hamnet realizes something is seriously wrong are harrowing. He goes around the family’s apartment, his grandparents’ adjoining house, even around Stratford, trying to get help. He can’t find any grownups.

Despite the fact that we all know it’s going to be Hamnet who dies, O’Farrell makes it suspenseful as the family gather around the twins — Hamnet has come and wrapped himself up with Judith — and one gets better as the other gets worse. Shakespeare’s sister has this thought: “Anyone, Eliza is thinking, who describes dying as ‘slipping away’ or ‘peaceful’ has never witnessed it happen. Death is violent, death is a struggle. The body clings to life, as ivy to a wall, and will not easily let go, will not surrender its grip without a fight.”

Chilling to read as we approach 400,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US and 2 million worldwide. And the twins have the plague — something that is entirely plausible but which O’Farrell points out in her afterword is her own invention. The historical record doesn’t tell us what Hamnet died of. But she noticed that even though the plague closed the playhouses in London numerous times, Shakespeare never wrote about it. What if it was too painful to write about?

The rest of the book moves back and forth between the backstory of how Agnes and Shakespeare met and married, how she sensed his greatness and his need to escape his family, how their family grows and their lives expand. And how Hamnet’s death and their subsequent grief undoes them, each in their own way. This description of Agnes in the months following Hamnet’s death illustrates O’Farrell’s poetic language and vivid imagery:

“Summer is an assault. The long evenings, the warm air wafting through the windows, the slow progress of the river through the town, the shouts of children playing late in the street, the horses flicking flies from their flanks, the hedgerows heavy with flowers and berries. Agnes would like to tear it all down, rip it up, hurl it to the wind.”

Slowly, Agnes begins to live with the grief, returns to healing people, to keeping bees, to growing herbs. The tension that has developed between she and her husband eases a bit. He becomes prosperous, realizes that she may need a change of scenery, buys the largest house in town. Agnes and Judith and her older sister, Susannah, make a new life there. Shakespeare returns from London a few times a year.

But none of them every stop trying to “find” Hamnet . . . Agnes frequently wonders this. Shakespeare admits to looking for him in the audiences who come to see his plays. When the midwife who helped bring the twins into the world tells Judith she sometimes senses Hamnet at night, Judith takes to roaming the streets, trying to sense him. Then, during one of her father’s prolonged absences, her step-grandmother comes by with a playbill: in London, people are talking about a new Shakespeare play, Hamlet.

Agnes hasn’t been to London but is outraged that he could make their grief public and decides she must go see for herself what her husband has done. Her brother travels with her, and she makes her way inside the Globe, up near the stage. While at first disappointed that the play is, to her ears, just speeches, she grows mesmerized:

“When the King addresses him as ‘Hamlet, my son,’ the words carry no surprise for her. Of course this is who he is. Of course. Who else would it be? She has looked for her son everywhere, ceaselessly, these past four years, and here he is. It is him. It is not him. It is him. It is not him. The thought swings like a hammer through her. Her son, her Hamnet or Hamlet, is dead, buried in the churchyard. He died while he was still a child. He is now only white, stripped bones in a grave. Yet this is him, grown into a near-man, as he would be now, had he lived, on the stage, walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice, speaking words written for him by her son’s father.”

It’s a haunting idea, even though O’Farrell notes that it’s unclear whether Shakespeare’s son was the inspiration for the play. In fact, in an interview for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, O’Farrell and Barbara Bogaev discuss that it’s unclear exactly when some of the plays were written, including Hamlet.

Regardless, this is a lovely book. It brings to fictional life a woman who is often only remembered for being left a “second best bed” and makes her a really interesting, strong woman with a mind equal to Shakespeare’s. It brings a little color to Hamnet’s brief life and brings the rest of the family alive. The only thing that struck me as a little off, after reading World Without End, where the plague ravaged whole villages, was that only two people got sick in the family, and there was no outbreak around town, but that’s not what the book would focus on, anyway.

A lovely, heartfelt read. And despite the grief, it’s not depressing.

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I don’t often blog about sequels, but Ken Follett’s World Without End is not really a sequel. I was telling a coworker today that you can read it without having read The Pillars of the Earth, because while it takes place in fictional Kingsbridge, it starts a couple hundred years later. So while there are a few references to the history of the town and the people who lived there in the time of The Pillars of the Earth, you can easily follow the story without having read the earlier book.

In the 1300s, Kingsbridge now has both a prior and a prioress, and whereas Prior Philip in the first book was a savvy leader who could handle political maneuvering, but was basically basically benevolent, the Priors in the second book are decidedly not (the men anyway — the Prioresses are much more like Philip). They are deeply conservative theologically and socially, they make no attempt to understand the town they control and the lives they impact, and the worst two scheme, plot, spy, blackmail, manipulate, undermine, lie, and even steal. One of the characters sits thinking about this: “Godwyn’s influence was malign, but all the same his power never ceased to grow. Why was that? Perhaps because he was an ambitious man with no conscience — a potent combination.” This week, that really resonates, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile in similar struggles ensue among secular leaders in the guild, where some greedy and selfish folks try to hold back those who would innovate our of concern for their own power and prestige, and petty grudges trump what’s best for the common good. The heroes of the book, a builder named Merthin and a wool merchant turned nun/healer named Caris, struggle against these difficulties in the town and the priory. Caris also fights misogyny and clericism: while her experience tending the sick leads her to discover what works best and how to actually help people get better, the priests are the ones who go to college, studying ancient medical texts. They order bloodletting and goat dung poultices while Caris determines that cleaning wounds with wine, hand washing, separating the seriously ill from other patients, and even, yes, mask wearing, are more effective.

It was strange to read about a sermon denouncing the wearing of cloth masks as heretical (the prior has heard this is a muslim practice) during a plague outbreak given the world’s present circumstances, and a plot twist predicated on one faction of hospital workers refusing to wear masks and the unfortunate outcome (no spoiler, I’m sure — more mask refusers than wearers got plague, which was more or less a death sentence). Follett writes about the temptations of power and greed and how these temptations lead to cruelty and violence., and undermine community and the common good. Maybe because I was expecting it this time, it didn’t bother me quite as much. Or maybe because the horrors of right now — COVID and white supremacists and Trump apologists and the willingness of so many elected leaders to lie and mislead and for so many Americans to believe lies and be misled — are so much more tangibly awful than the fictional violence of the middle ages. Anyway, I skimmed the more violent details.

Follett published this book in 2007, a time when the Anglican communion was in turmoil about LGBTQ clergy, so I appreciated that he makes it clear in World Without End that we’ve always had LQBTQ clergy. It’s an especially nice touch that Follett makes these characters among the more likeable and responsible people in the book. I also enjoyed the parts of the story that describe the various innovations and social changes that impact his characters’ lives. And he makes an interesting narrative choice by opening the book with a group of children witnessing a mysterious event in the forest and then following the paths of those children through adulthood.

Again, I enjoyed this very much, although I ended up staying up too late reading to find out what happened. I’m looking forward to starting A Column of Fire.

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Several years ago I found both The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett on the local library’s book sale shelves. The paperbacks are huge and heavy, and I suspected I’d want to read them back to back, so I’ve been waiting to have time to do that. I read one and have started the other over the past week, as well as a Christmas gift, The Book of Margery Kempe.

My edition of Pillars has a preface by Ken Follett about how he came to write about the building of a medieval cathedral. He grew up in Wales, and writes, “When I was a boy, all my family belonged to a Puritan religious group called Plymouth Brethren. For us, church was a bare room with rows of chairs around a central table. Paintings, statues, and all forms of decoration were banned. The sect also discouraged members from visiting rival churches. So I grew up pretty much ignorant of Europe’s wealth of gorgeous church architecture.” He goes on to describe living in London in his twenties, and buying a book to learn about architecture. This led him to visit the cathedral in Peterborough while he was waiting for a train on a reporting trip; he was so amazed that he says, “Cathedral visiting became a hobby for me.”

Eventually, he read The Cathedral Builders and The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel and learning this background planted the seed of an idea for a novel. He first sketched it out in 1976, but his agent didn’t think there was enough “melodrama.” He became a very successful writer of thrillers, including Edgar award winner The Eye of the Needle. But the cathedral book was still on his mind. He was on to something, because when he eventually wrote The Pillars of the Earth it became one of his best-selling books; he credits readers for this in the preface, explaining that word of mouth was what made it so popular.

I found it hard to put down. I definitely liked the story of Philip, Prior of fictional Kingsbridge (a different place than the real market town in Devon, apparently), the building of the cathedral, the running of the monastery, and the sections of the plot about the village, the wool business, and the community. The political, historical and social contexts are very interesting, as are the details of various building techniques and inventions. Follett hired Gimpel as a consultant when he was finally writing the book, around ten years after he thought of the idea. I didn’t care for the violence and brutality, realistic though it may be for the times (between 1123-1173).

But I think one of the appeals of The Pillars of the Earth is that Prior Philip, as Follett notes, has “a very practical, down-to-earth religious belief, a concern for people’s souls here on earth, not just in heaven.” To me, Philip represents the potential of the church to help people — especially people without much status, power, or money — thrive and live harmoniously, becoming their best selves despite human tendencies towards greed, revenge, and selfishness. That’s the overarching theme of the book, that even in a world full of unknown and unpredictable threats, as well as the more predictable and not always so benevolent dominance of a wealthy ruling class, true faith and the selfless love that grows out of it will see people through.

As heroes go, Philip is unusual: a celibate man of God who tries his best to atone for his wrongs and forgive his enemies. Also appealing are Ellen, who lives self-sufficiently in the forest for much of the book, and Aliena, who deals with numerous setbacks, mainly caused by men, but manages to live mostly as she wishes. None of these “good” characters are perfect; they sometimes do the wrong thing, which makes them more realistic. There are plenty of villains (and as I think about, they rarely do anything good) including other clerics, and reading about the civil and religious maneuvering and strife and the suffering they caused makes one marvel that mankind persisted.

Or that the church persisted, which brings me to Margery Kempe. Her Book, which covers much of her life (around 1373-1440), although it focuses on the period in her adult life when she received what she felt were revelations from God, is considered the first autobiography in English. Technically, she dictated it because she was illiterate, like many people (especially women) of her time, but it is considered her own account. The Computer Scientist thought I would find her interesting. I read her Book (actually, two books, published together) before starting World Without End, which starts in 1327, so overlaps with her lifetime.

I say she felt she was receiving revelations, because the translator (from Middle English) of this edition, Barry Windeatt, makes clear in his introduction and notes that her “assumption of a direct and special link with God” is in his view “a spurious claim, because her main concern, despite the attempts at visionary writing, would seem to be with the view others held of her as a person of particular religious capacity.” He goes on to say, “I don’t think there is any evidence of a continuing psychotic process at work here. The most satisfactory description would be of a hysterical personality organization; her behaviors served as a constant source of attention and, in her own terms, of confirmation from others around her.” He says “continuing” because by her own report, she had at least two breakdowns: one, probably post-partum depression and the other late in life for a period around two weeks long. Keep in mind that Windeatt comes to his scholarly conclusions after studying many other mystics, including some who claimed to have holy crying fits.

If someone acted like Margery today, no doubt people would suggest mental health treatment (or maybe she’d be running for office?). She had what many people in her time felt was a delusional sense that God, primarily in the person of Jesus, was speaking directly in her mind, and one manifestation of this was uncontrollable crying and “roaring” fits, often in churches. Margery even notes that she felt depressed “because of the dread that she had of deceptions and delusions,” but that God assured and comforted her. She also felt she heard directly from Mary and a number of saints. She was certain that she was persecuted for her mystical experiences, and honestly, seemed to relish this persecution because she felt is ensured her reward in heaven. And while there were many people who did harass, arrest, mock or threaten her, and she was often accused of being a fake at best or a Lollard at worst (a follower of John Wycliffe, whose views influenced later reformation figures), there were many others who thought she was telling the truth.

Either way, her book is an interesting view of the times and of an extraordinary life. She lived in and around Lynn in England, and was the child of a successful businessman who also served in many municipal offices. She married, had fourteen children, and had her own brewing business for a while. And during the times when she received her communications from God, she traveled all the way to Jerusalem, and took other pilgrimages in Europe, often setting out without much of a plan or many resources and managing to make her way. She annoyed her fellow travellers (some of whom claim they wouldn’t even take money to keep traveling with her, others of whom make up to her as soon as they see she’ll help them eat or travel better). She befriended a number of monks and priests, who read scripture and theology to her. She seemed to have what Windeatt believes in an excellent memory and an eye for detail. And when her husband was old and seriously injured in a fall, he “turned childish and lacked reason” so she “looked after him for years afterwards.”

Whatever you may think about her religious experiences, she seems to have genuinely believed, devoted herself to prayer, and acted generously towards others, both materially and in sharing what she learned and what she felt God was saying to her. She’s a fascinating character. And she would have known some of the places and possibly some of the people (she met a number of bishops) in Ken Follett’s books.

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Sarah McCraw Crow‘s debut novel, The Wrong Kind of Woman is set in New Hampshire, where we both live (Yes, I know her; no she didn’t ask me for a review). It’s set in the early 1970’s on a fictional college campus that, as McCraw Crow notes in her acknowledgements, “bears some resemblance to Dartmouth College before coeducation.” In the opening pages, Oliver Desmarais dies hanging Christmas lights, leaving Virginia, his widow, and Rebecca, his thirteen year old daughter. Much of the book concerns how Virginia and Rebecca each deal with Oliver’s death and their new lives. Virginia copes with the fact that she gave up her own academic life when she got married and became a mother and decides to revisit her unfinished doctoral thesis over a decade later. Rebecca tries to deal with missing her dad, feeling embarrassed by her mom, and navigating early adolescence.

There is another thread in the book about Sam Waxman, a junior at the college, who is struggling to figure out where he belongs on campus, in his family, and in the world, and what he wants to do with his life. He’s a math major taking a course in a new field — computer science — learning to program and listening to lectures that predict there will be computers in every office before long. He falls for an activist who wants to involve him in plans he’s not comfortable with, but he wants to impress her, so he struggles to find a way to help.

I think what impresses me most about this book is that the characters are very believable. They are imperfect people who sometimes worry too much about what other people think, or what the best way forward might be. They stumble. Sometimes they realize they’ve done the wrong thing and try to make amends. Virginia realizes she misjudged the small group of women professors on campus because she had taken her late husband’s view rather than forming her own, for example.

I also enjoyed how McCraw Crow captured the time not just in better known historical references like the Vietnam War and protest movements, but also in things like the back to the land movement, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (which produced Our Bodies, Ourselves), frosted lipstick, and pop and jazz references. Virginia’s idea for taking her dissertation in a new direction by writing about Sarah Miriam Peale is another interesting aspect of the plot — it makes sense that a woman with an emerging sense of the women’s liberation movement and her possible role in it would choose to elevate a lesser known female member of a famous art family.

An entertaining novel about people trying to change with the times and with their changing lives. Book clubs will enjoy it — not too long, solid writing, and lots of interesting relationships to discuss.

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I’ve read previous books by Robert Harris, and especially enjoyed Pompeii and Enigma. So when I saw a New York Times review of V2 recently, I was intrigued. And then it was available to check out as an eBook right when I was ready for a quick, page-turning read. I was fascinated to read that Harris wrote this just since COVID, although he got the idea in 2016 when he saw an obituary for Eileen Younghusband and went on to read her memoirs.

V2 is the story of the rocket that Hitler hoped would turn the war around for Germany, and which Harris notes in his acknowledgements killed about 2,700 people in London and 1,700 in Antwerp, as well as 20,000 slave labourers who died building the rocket program. He also notes that it destroyed 20,000 homes and left 580,000 more damaged, causing more longstanding issues in England after the war.

Harris tells the story of the program through the recollections of Rudi Graf, a PhD engineer (who, by the way, the other character call Dr. Graf) who has worked on rocketry since he was a teen. Graf recalls his long standing friendship with the real life rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and describes the rise of the program, funded by Nazi money and built by slaves. He also remembers feeling ill about the forced labor, but being too deeply involved to extricate himself. In the novel, Graf is directing the technical aspects of the V2 launches from Holland that hit London.

Meanwhile, the other main character in V2 is a young WAAF, Kay Caton-Walsh, who survives a V2 attack that injures her lover. Fearing they’ve been found out by his wife and anxious to contribute more actively to thwarting the German V2s, Kay asks to be transferred from her unit, which analyzes aerial photographs, to a new unit in Belgium that will use mathematical calculations to find the V2 launch sites so the air force can bomb them. Harris alternates between Graf’s story and Kay’s as the V2 program heads towards its — and the war’s — inevitable end.

Graf is interesting, and some moments where his struggle with the immorality of his work turns to action. It’s interesting to think about whether people actually have enough agency in a regime like Nazi Germany to defy, openly or surreptitiously. And if some of them are, like Graf, a little ambiguous; he wants to see his engineering dreams realized even as he is sickened by the means and the consequences. Kay isn’t as fully realized, but parts of her story are interesting too.

I especially enjoyed thinking about this novel as I considered a thread on Twitter today about the representative who just declared he’d spend his final month or so in Congress as an independent because he has finally decided the Republican party’s full throttled support of Trumpism is too much. Many people asked “why now?” — where was this guy when children and parents were separated, white supremacy embraced, violence incited, etc? One person posted that he felt it was probably like asking someone why they don’t leave an emotionally abusive partner. It’s understandable that people who are sickened by political immorality, especially in a powerful and violent regime like Hitler’s, feel trapped, threatened, afraid — which explains why Graf kept most of his uneasiness to himself. Although plenty of people escaped.

Anyway, V2 is a quick, entertaining read that may leave you wanting to read some history.

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My dad sent me Trouble the Water to distract me from the final pre-election campaigning. I appreciate that, and it worked. I finished it yesterday after work, as I was waiting for results. It’s a historical novel about Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who bravely sailed a steamboat that had become a Confederate war boat out of Charleston harbor and turned it over to the Union, protested segregated public transportation during the Civil War in Philadelphia, and later went on to be a five term Congressional representative for South Carolina. In Congress, Smalls fought for Black equity in the post-war South, although he was ultimately defeated in an election which featured voter intimidation by white supremacists.

His story is well worth telling. However, I found several things about Trouble the Water difficult, in light of my recent antiracism training. First, I don’t feel entirely good about a white woman writing slaves’ experience, including writing their dialogue in dialect. I know it’s common; that doesn’t make it right. Slaveowner McKee and his wife are portrayed as benevolent people, who even though they see slaves as inferior, view Robert and his mother Lydia as family. In the author’s note, Bruff makes clear that this is mostly speculative; while there is some evidence that Robert Smalls took in Mrs. McKee in her old age, there is no evidence that Mr. McKee called him “son.” And even if he did, the implication is that Robert Smalls excelled because of the benevolence of the powerful white family that enslaved him.

Also, while Bruff tells the story from the perspective of both whites and blacks, and portrays some white slaveowners as brutal, she creates a subplot about Robert Smalls and a fictional son, Peter, of the real life secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett as a rivalry that is really more about Peter’s anger at his father than about white supremacy. In real life, if Robert Smalls had broken a secessionist planter’s arm, he would have probably have been killed. Robert Barnwell Rhett was known as the “father of secession” and it is highly unlikely that he would have tolerated a slave breaking his son’s arm.

Do I think some white people in the South may have changed their views about slavery after the Civil War? Perhaps. Do I think the story of fictional Peter Rhett “personifies the possibility of redemptive transformation in the Old South” as Bruff explains in her author’s note? Absolutely not. Even if that part of the book was believable — that an individual raised to see Blacks as inhuman and the Confederacy as worth dying for could actually just be mad at his mean old daddy — former slaveholders didn’t just mellow and stop being racist. Everything about the Reconstruction era after the Union troops left the south, and all that followed affirms that. White supremacy culture rages on, as evidenced by the fact that white gerrymandering has gripped South Carolina since the late 1880s, and returned the white supremacy apologist Lindsay Graham to office just this week.

Might I have felt differently about this book a few months ago? Probably. But as Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy, tells readers who make it to day 28 of her book, “You can’t unsee and unknow what you now see and know.” And one of those things I now see and know is that white people have a history speaking for and about Black people. Especially the Black people we white people see as “good,” like Robert Smalls.

Did the author of Trouble the Water mean well? Probably so — she seems genuinely admiring of Smalls and disappointed that his story has been “suppressed.” She used her considerable privilege to get his story out. She spoke with and acknowledges the generosity of Smalls’ great-great grandson, Michael Boulware Moore. But as I read I could not shake the sense that Robert Smalls was once again enslaved, this time to the viewpoint of a “nice white lady,”* who in fictionalizing his life, elevated the perspectives of white people in order to try and present his.

*Nice White Ladies is the title of a forthcoming book by Jessie Daniels

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After telling a friend about This is Happiness by Niall Williams, she told me that one of her favorite novels, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, also featured a storyline about electricity coming to a rural area, and was also lyrical. She reads a great deal and spoke so highly of this book that I knew I needed to read it, too.

It’s a novel about love, as well as humankind’s desire to harness science for our purposes. When the story begins, Ray Foster (Fos) has returned to coastal North Carolina where he was raised, to watch the Perseid meteor shower and observe the bioluminescence on the sea. He’s has a theory that there’s a connection between light-emitting creatures and “celestial lights.” He runs out of gas and meets Opal, a bookkeeper, when his truck stops and he asks her father for some gas. They fall in love, get married and travel back to Knoxville, where Fos’s friend and fellow WWI veteran Flash and he run a photography studio.

For a good while the story is about Fos and Opal’s relationship, about Flash’s wildness, his estrangement from his prominent family. Ordinary things. Fos and Opal travel around Tennessee going to fairs where Fos puts on shows as a “phenomenologist,” demonstrating an x ray machine and other scientific phenomena. They long for a child, meet Opal’s cousins in a rural county, learn that she has inherited some land adjacent to her cousin’s farm. Flash takes them fishing, and introduces Opal to his favorite books, including Moby Dick. Opal reads most of them, but not that one (she tries, like many of us, and gives up). They follow along with the Scopes trial, Calvin Coolidge’s election.

This goes on, and Wiggins beautifully spins out the story of these three people, living and working and longing — Flash, to escape his family history, which we get a glimpse of, and live his own life, Fos and Opal to have a family of their own. After almost 200 pages, there is a plot twist that shatters the three friends’ lives.

From there the story focuses on Fos and Opal, how they pick up the pieces and make a new life (in a rural place where the Tennessee Valley Authority promises electricity soon). At long last they become parents to a son, Lightfoot. Fos goes from demonstrating x rays to showing people the toasters and other appliances they will soon be able to use — just as in This is Happiness. Opal gets a New Deal job as a rural librarian. There are a few more plot twists that lead Fos back into photography and ultimately, to Oak Ridge, one of the sites of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. (A few years ago I reviewed The Girls of Atomic City about women at Oak Ridge).

And there, another plot twist is so shattering that I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning first reading, and then thinking about what was going to happen next. By the end of the book, Lightfoot is nearly twenty, meets “Uncle Flash” and the two of them take an epic road trip. A young man full of questions and an older one who tells him, “Life is a series of collisions . . . it’s not a narrative experience. My advice to you is to stop trying to make it one.”

I guess Evidence of Things Unseen is a series of collisions. It’s not a beginning, middle, and end kind of story; we catch the characters in the act of living and we don’t know, when the novel comes to a close, what will happen to them. I said it’s about love, and as I reflect I think it’s really a book about Opal’s love, a steadfast love that transforms Fos’s life and sustains her friend Flash and her son Lightfoot, and touches several other people. And I said it’s about our desire to harness science — Wiggins shines a light on the consequences when the pursuit of that desire, and the belief that science is our salvation, overpowers our natural instinct to love one another and care for each other.

A powerful read, that I am still mulling over.

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It had been years since I’ve read Niall Williams. I own the series of nonfiction books he and Christine Breen wrote about moving from New York to County Clare. We went through a serious phase in our thirties of wanting to live radically differently than we do. We researched various alternatives, and that was how I found the Kiltumper books.

I knew that Williams went on to write fiction (and so has Breen, I learned this evening), but I hadn’t read any of his novels until now. This is Happiness caught my eye in the spring when I still thought I’d be ordering new fiction sometime this year for the library. I put a hold on the eBook and just got to check it out last week.

It’s the story of Noe, a seventeen year old who has left seminary in the early 70s and comes from Dublin to Clare to visit his grandparents, Ganga, a perennially happy but not very productive small farmer and Doady, his long suffering wife. While Noe is staying with them, their Faha, is being connected to the electrical grid. Not long after he arrives, Christy comes to board. He works for the electrical company and is there to assure the various property holders have signed off on the paperwork necessary to install the poles and lines.

But as Noe learns, Christy is really in Faha on a mission. He jilted a woman fifty years before, and is there to gain her forgiveness. In the meantime, he rides bicycles around the countryside with Noe, seeking a particular fiddle player. An unlikely friendship, this older man who is trying to walk back his regrets and a young one, unsure of his future? Perhaps, but it makes sense. In a way they are both trying to understand how best to live.

Noe is recalling all of this as an old man. Williams weaves the stories through a spring and summer when miraculously, it stops raining. Noe’s and Christy’s stories unspool slowly, and maybe because I read this book during a week when it was hot and mostly dry, that seemed fitting. At one point, Noe explains his long, winding digressions:

“The known world was not so circumscribed then nor knowledge equated with facts. Story was a kind of human binding. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was telling everywhere. Because there were fewer sources of where to find out anything, there was more listening.”

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

The details are so vivid in this book you’ll see the “car” Doady and Ganga take to church, pulled by an aging horse, smell the turf smoke, feel the heat that induces naps and the people bumping close together in St. Cecelia’s where everyone just moves down the pew and makes space. Williams’ musical, witty turns of phrase can help you picture expressions. For example, describing a neighbor:

“Bat was a man who tried in vain to make himself believable. He often looked like he was in mid-sum and realising he had forgotten to carry the one.”

And, when Noe develops a truly crushing crush on a young woman:

“I said her name, and, like the first man to eat the egg of a bird, felt a little ascension, and like him wouldn’t have been surprised to find feathers at my back.”

While we actually never learn whether Noe decides his future, Williams does bring Christy’s story to a tidy conclusion. And we learn that it’s his philosophy that “this is happiness” — meaning we can be content in the moment, even when things aren’t going our way (as they frequently don’t, in Faha). Ganga also ascribes to this, as he tells Rushe, and engineer from the electric company, that he and Doady aren’t “taking” the electricity which Rushe tells them contains, “In one switch, all the cures for loneliness.”

“Aren’t we happy as we are?” Ganga asks.

Imagine that. a lovely book about life and love, and yes, happiness.

 

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Ever since I read Lolly Willowes a few years ago I wanted to read more Sylvia Townsend Warner. Recently, I was looking for an escape, and picked up The Corner That Held Them. It fascinated me that the same author who wrote a book in which the devil appears as a sympathetic character would write another — considered a masterpiece — about a convent in the English countryside in the 1300s.

Although some people include this on plague novel lists, the Black Death plays a small (albeit pivotal) role in the book. It’s really about the human drama of a close-knit community, and about the management of a small convent in the Middle Ages, when such places got by on the dowries rich families paid for their daughters to become novices. And on the rents paid by by nearby tenants, and the manors on which they were founded. Which are some topics I’m a bit hazy on, and I plan to look into further.

The novel tells the story of the nuns’ lives — as a community, without dwelling too long on individuals —  their ambitions and fears, the way the convent’s well being depends on the bishop as well as the bailiff. Which near as I can tell is the property manager or overseer, who manages things like firewood and harvests and livestock. The prioress has some power but must manage up — the bishop, his custos (another kind of overseer, who reports on the management of the convent itself), the nuns’ priest (Sir Ralph, who is quite a fascinating character), the families who would place their daughters as novices.

There are a number of dramas of varying impact — a building project that goes awry, some personality clashes that even become violent, and endless financial issues. And towards the end of the novel, an uprising of poor people who are tired of being sent to the king’s wars, and tired of the church’s wealth. In fact, the pivotal events that lead to a surprise ending are triggered by the uprising, and by a visit from a beggar woman, Annis, who has fallen in with a thief who was raised at the convent.

Annis is working out what to do with a silly nun who wants to sell something (that isn’t hers to sell) “for the relief of the poor” when she has a thought that could probably sum up the novel’s theme:

“It is not hunger or nakedness that worst afflict the poor, for a very little thieving or a small alms can remedy that. No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists of their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labouring in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor.”

Townsend Warner wrote this in the 1940s about the 1300s . . . and it’s still an accurate description of systemic poverty.

And the writing took me away. Here’s a bit about the family members of Dame Matilda, come to see her installed as prioress in 1368: “Even with one’s eyes shut one could tell what manner of folk they were by the smells that came from their garments: an uncle’s lined boots, a grandfather’s hat, the velvet gown a great-great-grandmother had bequeathed.”

Or this description of Sir Ralph, ensconced in his role as nuns’ priest: “Now, in his dusty chamber or walking his accustomed rounds, a mere thinking could pierce his heart with pleasure.” Townsend Warner lists a number of these pleasurable ordinary thoughts, including, “. . . Saint Paul’s transfigured faith suddenly bursting out amid his polished arguments as the face of a satyr looks out from the laurel bush.” As vivid a simile of Paul’s letters as you’ll read.

An entrancing read, as forthright about the problematic power structures of the church as about human nature, entertaining and beautiful and strange. I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

 

 

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I’ve only read one other book by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, but ever since reading that a couple of years ago, I’ve kept my eyes out for his other books. I bought The Remains of the Day at a used bookstore. I’ve never seen the film, nor had I read the book before. It’s pouring buckets today so I thought it might be a good day to read a book set in the English countryside.

The Remains of the Day is about a quintessential English butler, Stevens, who prides himself on having learned from his father before him how to embody the dignity derived from “a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” When the book opens, Stevens remains at Darlington Hall in the early 1950s, although this great house has been sold to an American who has cut back on the staff and does not live there full time. Stevens is concerned with some recent errors he himself has made while working under these conditions and is considering how best to appeal for more staff when a letter arrives from Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Benn, formerly Miss Kenton.

When his American boss suggests he take a break and even offers his car, Stevens sees an opportunity to visit Mrs. Benn and see whether he can persuade her to come back to Darlington Hall. The novel is taken up with Stevens’ reminiscing, as he travels, about their work together in the house’s heyday. As he muses, Stevens posits that to be a great butler, as he strove to be, meant “to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.”

And he recalls the way his former employer’s reputation suffered because he truly believed that the Germans suffered after the treaty of Versailles and that the honorable way to treat a former enemy was not to saddle that enemy with reparations, but to leave the past in the past and “offer generosity and friendship to a defeated foe” as Lord Darlington’s godson Mr. Cardinal puts it. As Stevens recalls the events of the 1930’s and the men who came to consult with Lord Darlington and each other before WWII, it’s clear he is ruminating on Mr. Cardinal’s belief that, “Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.”

Ishiguro’s beautiful and subtle writing never spells out the final position Stevens takes on whether Lord Darlington was wise or foolish, although he seems to trust that his former boss was sincere. That’s one of the things I love about Ishiguro, is that he respects the reader’s ability to connect their own dots. Among which, in this book, is whether Stevens has any regrets and what his visit to Mrs. Benn revealed to each of them abut their choices in life. Would the world have turned out differently had Lord Darlington and men like him had not had so much influence? Would war have been averted if left to “the professionals” rather than gentlemen? Why did Mrs. Benn leave Darlington Hall? Did Stevens realize it at the time, or does he only come to see it during this visit? This would be a wonderful book club read.

A lovely read on a gloomy afternoon.

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