I’ve just finished Troy Chimneys, and already I want to read it again. This is partly to try to puzzle out the chronology, which is confused by a complicated multi-layer structure of diaries and letters bandied back and forth between various generations of different families — but it’s also because the story at the heart of this maze was worth the effort to dig through to it, a touching portrait of one man’s moral struggles.
To add a further complication, this man, Miles Lufton, born to an English clergyman’s family in 1782, thinks of himself as two men: Miles, the part of himself that would be happy to live in Wiltshire and “listen to the nightingale,” and Pronto, the social-climbing MP whose only goal in life is to enrich himself. The title refers to a house that Miles buys with Pronto’s gains with the idea that it can become a retreat for his better self, but this does not turn out as he had expected or hoped, as with so much else in his life. As he writes his memoirs he reflects on how the split in his being arose and how it may be bridged — perhaps by the evolution of a “third man,” one who can witness and transcend the limitations of both Miles and Pronto.
Miles’s life journey is framed by two love stories, one that takes place in his ignorant youth and one that arises as he approaches middle age. Here Kennedy is working with much the same material that occupied Georgette Heyer in her Regency romances, but gives it a more melancholy, reflective spin than those lighthearted concoctions do. Miles is always failing himself and others, and yet I don’t see him as a failure. His struggles resonate with our own, his quest for self-integration is both highly modern and one of the most ancient, archetypal human experiences. The ending is not a conventionally happy one, and yet it is somehow not depressing. By gaining self-knowledge, Miles has also gained a measure of freedom, and so his suffering is not felt to be in vain.
Kennedy’s evocation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (with some Victorian interludes) is lightly and expertly done. She crafts her language carefully to locate us in the period without sounding archaic. She has no need to throw about Regency slang or refer to details of fashion or etiquette; her characters simply exist in the time that belongs to them, without undue fuss and bother. To appreciate how she does this is yet another reason for rereading.
These are just a few of the thoughts that arose as I read this complex, playful, insightful and challenging novel. I don’t want to give away too many details, because part of the fun of reading is to discover them for yourself. If you venture to do so, be sure to plough through the framing letters at the beginning, which can be rather tough going, and get into Miles’s first Journal. I hope you will be quickly drawn into his story, as I was, and not want to leave.
For the third year in a row, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a birthday celebration in honor of the author Margery Sharp, to encourage everyone to read and enjoy her witty, entertaining novels. As Jane notes in her announcement post, for the first time in quite a while many of these are now easier to find (at least for those of us with e-readers) since ten of them have been released as e-books by Open Road Media. I took advantage of this fact to snag the only one that wasn’t already checked out from my library, Britannia Mews. It turned out to be the perfect book to beguile me for a few wintry hours, immersing me in the titular London neighborhood and its colorful cast of characters.
Though not a long novel, it takes us over a span of many years, from the Victorian age to the second world war, following the life of the central character, Adelaide. From a sheltered young girl who defies her parents with an ill-advised elopement, she evolves into a strong woman who has weathered many ups and downs of life, and learned one of its most essential lessons: there’s no use in trying to escape, because you always take yourself with you. With such a theme, it’s appropriate that the book is named after the run-down former stable area that Adelaide’s upwardly mobile family once moved away from, but that drew her back and would not let her go. Accepting her fate leads to some unexpected transformations, both in Adelaide and in the Mews.
The latter part of the book leaves Adelaide in the background to focus on her niece, Dodo, who is coming of age in a very different era leading up to the Second World War. Still, the need to find a sense of integrity is timeless, and Dodo goes through her own process of growth. Along the way she discovers some (but not all) of the secrets that lurk in her family cupboard, as Sharp slyly makes us question which truths really matter.
The pace of the novel never lets up, and the large jumps in time make it feel a bit breathless occasionally. Overall, though, Sharp makes it work, and packs a huge variety of incident and plot, and also of thought and passion and artistry, into a remarkably compact space — not unlike the Mews themselves.
I enjoyed every page of this delightful book, probably my favorite Margery Sharp so far. What’s yours?
Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)
I opened The Bear and the Nightingale with great anticipation and not a little trepidation; since the trend for fairy-tale fiction exploded some years ago, there have been some brilliant entries in the genre and some derivative duds. Katherine Arden’s debut novel looked promising, with its half-magical, half-historical Russian setting and an enticing cover, but what looks good doesn’t always turn out to be so in the reading.
Fortunately, from the first pages I was entranced, as Arden quickly led me into a truly wonder-full world, in which the time-honored motif of the mistreated stepdaughter gains new strength and richness through her multi-layered telling. There’s so much to discover and enjoy that I’d like to encourage you to just pick it up and explore it for yourself … but to name a few favorite aspects, I especially appreciated how elements of folklore and myth were treated in a way that brought them to life for modern readers, while feeling both genuinely atmospheric and psychologically true. At the same time, the historical setting — a medieval land of wooden huts, wandering monks and tribal machinations — is economically but convincingly developed through telling details of life and language.
Toward the end, I found that Arden’s storytelling weakened a bit. The villains became more one-sided and less interesting, and the battles with monsters started to feel too much like a video-game slugfest for my personal taste. I’m hoping that in the sequels (and yes! there will be sequels!) she’ll carry the skill she shows so amply in the buildup of this story through to the very last pages. I will definitely be watching for her next effort with great interest, and confidence that this time my expectations will be rewarded.
Jane of Beyond Eden Rock tagged me, and I was honored to think that she would be interested in my answers! Here we go…
What is your favorite historical setting for a book?
This question makes me think of the settings I would actually like to live in — I may enjoy reading about late Imperial Rome or Revolutionary France, but they would be a bit dangerous to inhabit.
One type of setting I love is a wonderful old house that’s been lived in for many generations, and gathered much history and character. The Green Knowe books by Lucy Boston provide one example (and this is even a real house that you can visit – see Jean’s recent tour here).
Another is a nostalgic trip back to a warm family setting, as in the Deep Valley books by Maud Hart Lovelace. I know the past wasn’t really this simple, but it’s nice to enter those rosy memories for a while anyway.
What writer/s would you like to travel back in time to meet?
I would love to meet Louisa May Alcott and talk about how women’s lives have changed since her time. I’d also warn her not to take the calomel that ruined her health.
What book/s would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?
What book/s would you travel forward in time and give to your older self?
As I age, I want to keep reminding myself of the important messages in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.
What is your favorite futuristic setting from a book?
Ursula K. LeGuin’s vision of peaceful interplanetary colonization and interaction in her so-called “Hainish” books.
What is your favorite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?
It’s impossible to choose just one favorite — so many of my favorite books are set in different time periods! But I’m going to give a nod to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, largely because I think she does a brilliant job at capturing the Regency period (with a magical slant). There are so many books nowadays with this setting, and very few are truly convincing.
Spoiler time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book just to see what happens?
Yes, I do, and I feel no shame about it. Sometimes the tension is too much for me and I just have to know the outcome; then I can go back and see how we got there. Spoilers don’t bother me, obviously. But everyone is different — if you don’t want to know the ending ahead of time, I certainly respect that.
If you had a time turner, where would you go and what would you do?
There are many places I’d like to have a peek — Hilda’s monastery in Whitby, the theater of Dionysus in Athens, a Regency ball… I think I’d soon be glad to get back to modern sanitation, medicine, and women’s rights, though. (Even though it’s tempting right now to find a nice corner of the past to go hide in.)
Favorite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in different time periods?
The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit made a strong impression on me as a child. Nesbit’s depiction of different times and places (from ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Britain to more fanciful visions of Atlantis and the London of the future) might not stand up to modern scholarship, but it was rich with detail and woven into an exciting quest narrative. It’s where my love of historical fiction began.
What book/series do you wish you could go back in time and read again for the first time?
Funnily enough, I don’t have the feeling that I wish I could read books again for the first time. I often enjoy reading them for the second, third, or twentieth time just as much, though it’s a different experience. I only wish I had more time to do that!
I’m tagging Wendy of Falconer’s Library because she says nobody ever tags her, and I hope she might like this one. Otherwise, please feel free to take it up if you’d like to, and be sure to let me know if you do.
The second entry in Amy Stewart’s historical mystery series based on the real-life Kopp sisters is as compulsively readable and effortlessly enjoyable as the first. Constance Kopp has become the first female deputy sheriff in New Jersey — or thinks she has. But politics and a devious criminal get in the way, and Constance finds herself demoted to prison matron. That doesn’t stop her from engaging in the exciting chase after a dangerous fugitive, with her own unique blend of determination, guts, and luck (of both kinds).
These are books that combine character- and relationship-building with the pure fun of a detective story. I found that the first book, Girl Waits with Gun, was heavier on the former, while this one emphasizes the latter. I would definitely recommend reading them both together to get the full story, for the important history of Constance and her family doesn’t get much play in the sequel, nor do they have many scenes with each other since Constance is often off on her own. I hope this element will come back in future volumes, but for now it was fine to de-emphasize that aspect in favor of more action. The relationship of Constance and the sheriff (and the sheriff’s wife) does come a bit further here, in some interesting ways that make one wonder where it will be headed. Not in any conventional or hackneyed direction, I would guess.
The way Stewart mixes fact and fiction might be controversial for some, but I found that she does it in a responsible way. She makes it clear that she has played around with characters and incidents for narrative purposes; I can accept that this is a sort of fictional alternate reality to be enjoyed on its own terms. On the other hand, the real-life nuggets she’s pulled from the headlines and archives of the past give verisimilitude and ground the story in reality. Stewart expertly plays imagination and research off of one another in a way that is a pleasure in itself; for example, she comes up with a reason for Constance to appear as she does in a particular real-life newspaper photo that is perhaps not factually accurate, but plausible enough in the context of the world she has created, and also an amusing comic touch.
So bring on more of the Kopp sisters! I can’t wait to see what they get up to next.
Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (1942) M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006, 2008)
A few weeks ago, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where there is a room full of portraits of prominent Boston revolutionaries. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and others — captured on canvas, they look down at us with a cool yet challenging gaze. What would they think of our political antics today? What do we understand as the legacy they left us?
I had just met many of these legendary figures in the pages of Esther Forbes’s Newbery-award-winning novel, Johnny Tremain. Somehow I had avoided this well-known classic throughout my school days, but now I was swept up into the story of apprentice silversmith Johnny, the accident that changes his life, and his encounters with the Sons of Liberty and the events leading up to the first shots fired in the War of Independence. It deserves the acclaim it has received, for it’s a vividly told, strongly characterized tale that brings a place and time to vibrant life.
Even though it was published as a children’s book, and would probably now be labeled as “YA,” I think I enjoyed it far more now than I would have as a child, when the central character of Johnny would have had limited appeal for me, and I would have been more confused than inspired by much of the historical detail. But other children, with different interests than mine, may have a different response; this is truly a book that defies age limitations and definitions. Read it young, or read it old, but do read it. It’s a wonderful exploration of themes of friendship, loyalty, courage, forgiveness, love, and self-transformation.
Yet there is something missing in Forbes’s account. Though black servants and “handmaidens” appear briefly in the narrative, and once or twice there is a reference to “slaves,” there is no serious acknowledgement of the fact that the vaunted fight for liberty was undertaken with a full acceptance and even dependence on black slavery, which (as my recent reading of New England Bound made clear) was woven deeply into the economy and social structure of all the colonies, north and south.
Forbes puts the most stirring speech of the book in the mouth of a man some of the other freedom fighters consider a madman, and this may be her oblique nod to the irony that underlies the whole event. As James Otis asserts that they are fighting “so that a man can stand up” — implying any human being, of any race, with dignity and integrity — most of the other revolutionaries turn away without comment. His words move Johnny, though, as they were meant to move the readers of Forbes’s time who were engaged in another war against an even more terrible tyranny, and they resound into our own time as an ideal to strive toward. But do they really represent what the Boston leaders thought? How could they engage in a struggle for liberty while actively subjugating and oppressing other human beings?
This irony is brought to the fore and engaged with in a complex way in a two-part novel by M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Octavian is born into slavery in a Boston academy where scholars raise him in a bizarre experimental environment. The goal is to see whether Africans can attain the heights of European culture — or else, when the academy’s patronage changes hands, to prove that they cannot.
Regardless of the goal, the fact remains that Octavian, his mother, and their fellow slaves are treated as things rather than as people, objects that can be exchanged and priced like any other item at a market stall. When Octavian realizes this, he must break away and begin his own fight for liberty. His journey takes him into the camps of both armies, where he finds that neither has any interest in his personal liberation, but only in using him for political and military expediency. It’s up to him to seek his own precarious path toward freedom.
Anderson writes in a remarkably fluent eighteenth-century style that intersperses Octavian’s first-person account with letters, diaries, and proclamations in various voices and modes. It’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly evokes the liveliness and erudition of the literature of the period, and I enjoyed it very much, especially in the first volume, before it becomes too much like a parlor trick.
I did wonder, though, how the intended audience of this avowedly YA novel would receive it. As a teenager I would probably have been as mystified as I was by Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, and not persisted very far. The scenes of combat, murder, torture, rape, and other acts of violence would also have been hard for me to take, had I been able to understand what was going on. But again, maybe that’s just me — perhaps teen readers of today, with stronger stomachs than mine, will be undaunted by the mountains of arcane vocabulary words, and be pulled along by the gripping plot and the truly revolutionary ideas it embodies. In any case, adult readers should not be put off by the YA label; this is another book that has no upper age limit.
Today, as many Americans are clamoring to subject themselves to a tyrant far more devious and unprincipled than poor old George III ever was, and as our “free country” continues to reveal its dark tendency towards oppression and domination, both of these books have much to teach us. Each of us has a chance, now, to truly “stand up.” We will do so not through unthinking slogans and rhetoric, nor by blaming and demonization of others, but by means of the inner fight for freedom that conquers self-interest and embraces humility, compassion, and reverence.
Will a day come when we no longer callously allow our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to depend upon the suffering of others? May the struggles of Johnny and Octavian and their comrades inspire us in this most decisive battle. More than ever, our future depends on it.
Paris in Julyis an event hosted by Thyme for Tea that encourages us to enjoy and blog about all things French — books, movies, food, what have you. In a burst of synchronicity, when I learned of this event I already had not just one, but four books on my shelf to go with the theme, including several newly published or reissued translations from French, and one debut novel in English. I had a fabulous time immersing myself in French history, culture, and atmosphere with these books, and I hope you will too!
The Sun King Conspiracyby Yves Lego and Denis Lepee, translated by Sue Dyson
This historical novel is set during the early years of the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. A highly complex tapestry of voices, and plot threads, it seems to attempt to put a “Da Vinci Code”-type spin on French history, with mixed success. For me the first half, which we spend waiting for the death of Cardinal Mazarin, the real power behind the throne for many years, dragged a bit. The second half, when Louis comes into his own and some fortunes rise while others fall, was more exciting, but the concluding reveal of the great conspiracy that had been anticipated throughout the book was a letdown — silly and unconvincing. The large cast of characters and short chapters, with their abrupt scene changes, could also be confusing. Still, I enjoyed the panoramic view of a time and place about which I had previously read very little, even though the perspective on certain historical characters and events should be taken with a large grain of salt. Gallic Books, April 2016 (reissue) • Source: ARC from publisher
Constellationby Adrien Bosc, translated by Willard Wood
On October 27, 1949, the Air France aircraft Constellation-BAZN took off from Orly airport with 48 souls. In the early hours of October 28, as it was landing for refueling in the Azores, the plane disappeared. In this short novel, Bosc gives voice to some of the individuals who perished, both famous and unknown, as well as retracing the response of the world to the tragedy, and even giving some insight into his personal research journey. Structured as brief vignettes that switch from one topic and point of view to another, it was more like a tantalizing set of appetizers than a full meal, leaving me wanting to know more about some of the lives we glimpse so fleetingly. Yet perhaps that was partly the point — to highlight the briefness and transience of life, leaving us with an impression like a sprinkling of stars in the night. Other Press, May 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher
Girl in the Afternoonby Serena Burdick
Burdick’s debut novel was a compelling read that I finished in nearly a single sitting, with its story of two young painters in 1870s Paris, and the web of family secrets, deceit and betrayal that both binds and divides them. Though the subject matter is sensationalistic, Burdick’s treatment of it is not; rather than aiming at big, splashy effects, she quietly makes us feel the emotional impact of the events she describes, through subtle and evocative turns of phrase that make her writing a pleasure to read. It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be — the artistic themes stayed more in the background than I had expected — but that turned out not to be a problem, as the result was moving, surprising, and thought-provoking. St. Martin’s Press, July 2016 • Source: ARC from publisher
The Life of Elvesby Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
I haven’t quite finished this one yet, but I already know that it’s one readers will find either magically poetic or utterly impenetrable — and I know that I tend toward the first camp, though with understanding for the second. An atmospheric, slow-moving fantasy about two extraordinary girls in pre-WWII France and Italy, it’s one of those rare books I can enjoy without always entirely understanding what is going on. It reminded me in various ways of Little, Big; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; the Gormenghast books; and The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. . . so if you love any of those, it is probably worth a try. Europa Editions, February 2016 • Source: E-book from library
Some copies were received for review consideration from the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.
When I heard of Edith Maxwell’s new “Quaker midwife” mystery series, I was immediately intrigued. What a fun way to investigate a corner of New England history — the series is set in late nineteenth century Amesbury, Massachusetts, a former mill town at the mouth of the Merrimack River north of Boston — from an unusual angle.
In Delivering the Truth, Quaker midwife Rose Carroll becomes a suspect when a difficult carriage factory manager is killed after the factory itself is hit by an arsonist. Struggling with being less than a perfect Friend, Rose delivers the baby of the factory owner’s mistress even while the owner’s wife is also seven months pregnant. After another murder, Rose calls on her strengths as a counselor and problem solver to help bring the killers to justice before they destroy the town’s carriage industry and the people who run it.
I enjoyed the character of Rose, an intelligent and caring young woman, and was fascinated by all the details of her midwifery practice. I also loved learning more about the Quaker community and about poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, a real-life citizen of Amesbury who appears in the book. The story is well-paced and keeps you guessing as Rose races to try to find the killer before there is more loss of life. I sometimes was distracted by a modern-sounding word or phrase, but the language in general flows easily and serves the storytelling.
Maxwell’s love for and knowledge of her historic home town are especially evident in the way she brings it to life on the page. I’m looking forward to a visit some day, but until then I’m so happy that the author agreed to share a description of a recent tour she gave to celebrate the book launch. Enjoy this glimpse of Rose’s world, and I do hope that you’ll look into her adventures — book two is coming in 2017.
Because my new historical mystery, Delivering the Truth, takes place in the northeastern Massachusetts town where I live, I decided to create an historical walking tour to help launch the book two months ago. I ordered up a custom-made Quaker dress for myself from a local seamstress, made myself a bonnet, acquired an apron, and we were off!
Many of the buildings still standing in Amesbury were already built and in use in 1888 when my Quaker midwife Rose Carroll is walking around delivering babies and solving crimes. I started the tour in Market Square in front of one of the many Hamilton Mills buildings. The square was the center of activity in any old New England town.
I was surprised, pleased, and a little concerned that sixty people showed up, but all went well. I introduced the book and the tour, and read a short scene that takes place as Rose walks through the square the morning after a disastrous fire.
We moved up Main Street, pausing to admire a mural that depicts carriages and life in the period when my book is set, as well as the lower falls of the Powow River rushing below, where one of my (fictional) bodies was found. We proceeded to the Josiah Bartlett statue. This tribute to the native son who was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence was dedicated on July 4, 1888 – which is the opening to my second book, Called to Justice (April 2017).
I led the group to the historic Friends Meetinghouse, a thriving Quaker church (mine, actually),which John Greenleaf Whittier help design and where he worshiped. I shared a short scene from the book before we moved on to Whittier’s home on Friend Street. My guests got a quick tour and listened to part of a scene with Rose talking to Whittier in his study.
We moved on, pausing to talk about the original library and the Opera House, neither still standing, then walked along the upper falls of the Powow, with a brief stop to talk about the mill industry and mill girls like Rose’s niece. The tour ended with a last reading in the amphitheater.
People seemed to very much enjoy the stroll, the history, and the readings. I conducted a second walk in late June during Amesbury Days, also well received. You can see a taste of the walk on my YouTube channel.
I’m delighted that the Amesbury Library and the Whittier Home are sponsoring Delivering the Truth as an All-Community Read this summer. Several high school teachers are also assigning it to their classes, which I’ll be visiting in the fall. The summer activities will culminate in a staged reading by two costumed actors of the four scenes in the book that feature both Rose and Whittier, and the event will take place in the Friends Meetinghouse.
Readers: What’s your favorite historical site? Have you ever gone on a walking tour connected with a mystery? Would your town like to host an All-Community Read of the book, too?
Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her short story, “A Questionable Death,” was nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from her Quaker Midwife Mysteries series, which debuted with Delivering the Truth in April, 2016.
Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats, and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors. You can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her web site, edithmaxwell.com.
Alison Anderson is perhaps best known as a translator — maybe you’ve heard of a little phenomenon called The Elegance of the Hedgehog? — but she’s also a novelist in her own right. With her latest novel, The Summer Guest, she seems poised to come to greater prominence in the latter role, with a beautiful and moving story that brings together life, language and literature in a magical way.
The “summer guest” is Anton Chekhov, who at the beginning of his literary career spent two summers on an estate in the eastern Ukraine belonging to the Lintvaryova family. There he met Zinaida Lintvaryova, a young doctor tragically stricken by blindness and seizures that she knew would soon prove fatal. Their growing friendship is the main subject of Zinaida’s diary, in which she painstakingly documents the precious experiences and revelations that illumine her darkness. Most intriguingly, Chekhov tells her of a novel that he is working on, in which he’s striving to do something different from the short stories and drama that come more naturally to him. She becomes almost a working partner to him, giving him the wisdom earned through suffering, even as he gifts her with his wealth of observation and description, his bubbling sense of humor, and his attentive respect.
The diary, though, is only one layer of this multi-faceted narrative. In the present day we meet Katya, a Russian woman now living in Britain with her husband, where they run a publishing company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The publication of the diary, Katya hopes, may be a turning point in their fortunes…but it soon becomes clear there are further layers of secrets and intrigue to be uncovered. Is the diary only the beginning of another story?
Then there is Ana, the translator to whom Katya entrusts the manuscript. As she works through its pages, she becomes more and more engrossed in the lives of Chekhov and the Lintvaryovas, and in the idea of the novel that might be waiting to be discovered. Figures from her past come back to haunt her as she starts to investigate what she thinks may be the key to her own future.
As you can tell, there is a lot going on here, and some of the strands are more successful than others. The diary is the strongest and most substantial part, while the stories of Katya and Ana sometimes feel like a distraction, creating tangents that take away from the main narrative. Certain elements — like the present-day troubles in the Ukraine, or Ana’s former love life — feel somewhat haphazardly thrown into the mix, not given quite enough time or depth to be meaningful.
Yet in the end, I did find that the presence of the other two women added poignancy and meaning to Zinaida’s story. The life-giving nature of literature and the vital role of translation, of communion between artistic souls, is seen from different angles and given a new slant. The perspectives of publisher and translator, as well as of writer, reader, listener, and interpreter, come together to show how important stories are to us as human beings, how powerful our need for creating and receiving and living them.
The language is carefully and lovingly crafted, most impressively in the diary, which is written in an English that flows with ease and eloquence and still somehow gives an indefinable sense of being a translation, leaping across the gulf of another language and culture to speak of that which is both foreign and common to us all. I don’t want to think of Zinaida’s diary as a fictional construction, or of her friendship with Chekhov as a novelist’s fantasy, so real and convincing are their interactions, so deeply moving some of the passages in which she speaks of how she lives in the face of approaching death. Here she speaks to Chekhov, or rather to her friend Anton Pavlovich:
I have paused innumerable times since my first headache, my first dizziness. Each time, with each spell, seizure, degree of blindness, I have lost a part of life. Each time fear comes in, showing death to me. You have seen for yourself, from last summer to this, how life is draining out of me…And each time I do not die — although I could choose to let go, see the pointlessness of it all — I do not die because I shake my fist at fear. This is all there is, yet it is still so much. Even I have my moments of hope — not for eternity, not even that I might survive or recover my sight — because I already have survived, and I have learned to see.
Included in the novel is the real obituary that Chekhov wrote for Zinaida, in which he spoke of the “rare and remarkable patience with which [she] endured her suffering.” From such fragments, a few lines in a letter, the known facts of two summer visits, Alison Anderson has brought her people, both real and imagined, past and present, into shimmering life. It may be an illusion, but it’s one of those magical works of fiction that helps us to better see the truth.
This review is part of the TLC Blog Tour for The Summer Guest. Visit TLC to see more reviews and features from the tour.
What happens when an eminent scholar and biographer turns her hand to fiction? In the case of Janet Todd’s A Man of Genius, we get a highly distinctive, engrossing tale of mystery and madness, centering on a woman writer of one of those “horrid books” that were so popular around Jane Austen’s time. In Todd’s novel, Ann St. Clair has no respect for her own writing, seeing it only as a profitable and not too unpleasant way to make a living. She’s also glad to be independent of her uncaring, distant mother, who is entirely wrapped up in the memory of her dead husband.
The gothic elements of Ann’s fiction start to intrude into her own life, though, when she tumbles into a bizarre relationship with a male writer whose friends think him a genius-in-waiting, based on his one fragmentary work. Haunted by the bitter ghosts of her childhood, tying herself to an increasingly unstable man who neither needs nor wants her, Ann trails him across the post-Napoleonic landscape of Europe to a strange, shadowy existence in the underworld of Venice. The conclusion is shattering, surprising, and for me, unforgettable.
Ann’s story is not a comfortable or easy one to read, and this is not an amusing historical pastiche. Todd takes us into the dark heart of nineteenth century London and Venice, following her protagonist into a horrible form of emotional and physical subjugation. Her journey is harrowing, violent, and sad, and readers must have a strong stomach to follow her through to the teasingly hopeful end. But for those who do, the journey into the depths becomes a confirmation of the power of the self, which sometimes only lights up when threatened by utter eclipse.
Todd doesn’t attempt an imitation of the writing of the time — we are looking over the characters’ shoulders from a modern perspective, as it were — and yet her highly mannered style chimes well with the historical period. One can tell that she has immersed herself in it to such an extent that she can play freely with its language and people and ideas, so that her creation is relevant to both the “then” of the story and the “now” in which we experience it.
I usually avoid books that are gleefully advertised as “dark” and “harrowing,” as I dislike the kind of prurient pleasure-in-others’-pain that they often seem to trade on, but Ann’s story offers something more complex and far more interesting than that. As we move with Ann from the fragmentary to the whole, from blind folly to a hard-won wisdom, we are touched by some of the deepest mysteries of the human heart. Janet Todd has beautifully translated her passion for and knowledge of the era and its literature into a compelling fictional creation. I hope she will give us many more.