My attention span this month is not up to long reviews, but I did read some notable books that I’d like to mention at least briefly.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Going in with high expectations for this generally acclaimed retelling of The Tempest, I found it disappointing. Re-setting Shakespeare’s tale of captivity, revenge, and freedom in a modern-day prison acting program was clever, but I found Atwood’s short novel was too dependent on such ingenious ideas and not enough on real, convincing characters. And the denouement was way too fast; what might work on stage feels hasty and contrived in a novel.
While there may be some narrative re-castings of dramatic originals that are successful, I think it’s a hard thing to do, and much rarer than those that go in the other direction (from page to stage or screen). In this case I’d be interested to see a screen version. Where I found Atwood’s descriptions falling flat, some well-done visuals and strong acting could bring her vision to life.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Lately, some historical novels have set my teeth on edge with their sloppy use of language and other period details. I don’t know quite what it is, because I’m certainly no expert on such things, and often other knowledgeable readers and reviewers seem bothered not at all by the things that make me cringe. But I do know when there’s a book that gets past my own personal alarm bells — and I’m glad to say that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was one of these. First-time author Gowar rings some charming changes on familiar motifs in a tale of merchants, courtesans, and mermaids in eighteenth-century London. While some narrative threads were left hanging, in general Gowar moved deftly between high-, middle- and low-life settings, and wrote with a zest and originality that makes me very interested to read whatever she comes up with next.
Fantasy lovers, as well as those allergic to magical elements in fiction, will both want to know one thing: is the mermaid real? Yes, and no, and maybe. Dealing with this question is one of Gowar’s achievements, and you’ll have to read the book to see how she does it.
Death of a Unicorn by Peter Dickinson
The work of the late Peter Dickinson was never a great favorite of mine, but in latter years I have come to appreciate it more and more. Now I have finally gotten around to reading one of his crime novels with this, a recent reprint from Small Beer Press. Not exactly a detective story, it’s a psychological drama in which the narrator (an aristocrat who has found success in writing romance novels to save her estate from financial collapse) looks back at an incident from her younger days and finally puts together the puzzle of what happened to her first lover, killed inexplicably in South America after a few short months of happiness.
There was lots to enjoy in the Mitford-esque trappings of a stately home with a dysfunctional family, and the setting within the publishing world. The one weakness that really bothered me was the trope of a smart, talented woman being caught up in a relationship with an unattractive, abusive man, a relationship that indelibly shapes her life even after he’s gone. The male fantasy that women will adore them whatever crap they pull is one that I wish could be overcome, in literature as in life.
No Name by Wilkie Collins
I’ve enjoyed several of Wilkie Collins’s suspenseful novels, and this is considered to be another one of his best. Written between The Woman in White and The Moonstone, it turns on a legal peculiarity: the status of illegitimate children in nineteenth-century England. When a series of unfortunate events robs a couple of gently-brought-up girls of their inheritance, they deal with it in very different ways. As one patiently suffers her fate, the other is determined to get her own back, at whatever cost.
The premise is ingenious (and considered highly immoral at the time of publication), the characters promising, but I could have done with less overt moralizing of the “Now she must decide between her good and evil sides!” variety. The psychology of the corrupting effect of vengefulness was clear enough without beating us over the head with it. The novel also dragged on too long for my taste, then wrapped up with a hasty romantic ending of the most unabashedly coincidental and melodramatic sort. An enjoyable romp overall, but lacking in subtlety and with uneven pacing.