Review 1471: Homegoing

Writers seem to be experimenting with the form of the novel these days, not always successfully. Yaa Gyasi uses the form of linked short stories to good effect, however.

In paired stories, the novel follows two half sisters and their descendants through 300 years of history. In 18th century Gold Coast, Effia is being courted by the son of a king, but her mother, Baaba, tells her to hide the fact that she has reached womanhood. Her suitor eventually marries someone else, and Effia is married to a white man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is where slaves are kept before being shipped to the colonies.

Esi is the daughter of Big Man and Maame, a former slave to Effia’s family. In her attempts to befriend Abronoma, her family’s slave, she sends a message to Abronoma’s family to tell them where she is. Thus, she herself becomes a slave when her slave’s family attacks and captures her village.

The novel checks in with each of eight characters of the girls’ descendants, sometimes telling the entire stories of characters’ lives, other times dealing with significant moments. Both families are affected by this great evil in their lives, slavery and its aftereffects. This structure allows Gyasi to explore some of the key events in the histories of Ghana and the United States.

At first, I thought I might get frustrated with the format, because I often want more from short stories. But because the stories are about two families, some of the characters are present in more than one, and you can at least find out what happened to them. Many of the stories are grim, but the novel ends hopefully. Gyasi’s voice is a fresh one, and I found this novel captivating.

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Review 1460: The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart arrives on the Isle of Skye to take up a position as an assistant to a folklorist in 1857. She has fled her family because of a situation that occurred during her volunteer work and because her father doesn’t believe a girl of her upbringing should work. She has taken a job on Skye because her mother, who died when she was a child, loved it there.

Upon her arrival in Skye, Audrey notices a croft girl who appears to be ill. The local people believe she was taken by fairies. The Buchanans, her employers, aren’t interested in what happens to a girl of her class. The minister thinks even Miss Buchanan’s story-collecting activities encourage superstition.

Audrey is worried, because she hasn’t been able to get the locals to tell her any stories so can’t do her job. But then she begins hearing about other young girls who have disappeared. No one seems to want to listen to her ideas that the disappearances may be related, not even the kind nephew of Miss Buchanan, Alec. While all this is going on, Alec’s father is enclosing his land and evicting tenants.

This is an atmospheric novel that nicely blends the folklore of the area with more sinister themes. Although I almost immediately figured out what was going on, if not the motive, I enjoyed the journey. This is an entertaining historical suspense novel.

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Review 1459: The Charterhouse of Parma

I found a nice hardcopy edition of The Charterhouse of Parma a while back and finally decided to read it. I have to conclude that I am not a fan of Stendahl. I read The Red and the Black a few years ago and deeply disliked its hero, who is essentially a sociopath.

The Charterhouse of Parma is about the life of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrizio, the second son of the Marchese and Marchesa del Dongo. When Fabrizio is a boy, the region where he lives, near Lake Como, goes back and forth between occupation by the French and rule by Austria. Although Fabrizio’s father is a conservative devoted to the Austrian king, Fabrizio grows up with romantic stories about Napoleon’s exploits. When he is a young man, extremely naïve and stupid, he runs off to fight for Napoleon just in time for Waterloo. He doesn’t even know how to join the army so ends up being mistaken for a spy and having so many ridiculous exploits that I thought I was reading a comedy. I wasn’t. In any case, this adventure results in his being accused by his elder brother of being a spy for the French so that he can no longer reside in Austria, which includes portions of Italy.

Meanwhile, his beloved aunt, the Countess Pietranara, is widowed. She eventually meets Count Mosca, a powerful person in the government of Parma, who falls in love with her. He offers to quit his position and move to Milan to be her impoverished lover (he is married) or to have her marry Duke Sanseverina in name only so that she can respectably move to Parma and be at court—and also be his mistress. She chooses the latter plan.

After Fabrizio’s return from the front, Duchess Sanseverina and Count Mosca try to help Fabrizio gain some position worthy of his birth. They choose the church and advise him how to behave. But Fabrizio is struggling between his instincts and his conscience and consistently falls into one mishap after another.

When I tell you that Tolstoy modelled his description of Waterloo—the least interesting part of War and Peace, which I consistently skipped over—after Stendahl’s, and when I say further that Waterloo, to me, was one of the most interesting parts of this book, you will guess how much I enjoyed it. Actually, I should say the first half of the book, because I finally stopped reading. I did not find Fabrizio interesting and didn’t really care what happened to him.

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Review 1428: The Children’s Book

I have an inconsistent reaction to Byatt. I find her novels either completely absorbing, as I did Possession, or perplexing, as I did A Whistling Woman. The very long novel, The Children’s Book, nevertheless falls into the first category.

Byatt’s novel takes on the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods, a time when, she says, adults seemed to be trying to prolong childhood, when, for example, Peter Pan made its appearance. Fittingly then, a major character is Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s tales. She has many children, and aside from her authorly output, she writes a continuing story for each one of them. It’s her oldest son, Tom’s, misfortune that she confuses fiction with reality.

The novel begins when, on a visit to a museum with his mother, Tom notices a ragged boy and follows him to find he is living in a closet in the museum. This boy is Philip Warren, a worker in a pottery factory who has run away because he wants to make pottery, not feed fires and do other mundane tasks. Major Prosper Cain, the museum keeper Olive is visiting to consult, thinks he may be able to find a place for Philip, and Philip ends up working at Prospect House for the brilliant but disturbed potter Benedict Fludd.

But first we have the Wellwood’s elaborate Midsummer play, where we meet all of the important characters of the novel. The Wellwood’s guests are artists, anarchists, socialists, fellow Fabianists, and even a banker in the person of Basil Wellwood, the host Humphry’s brother. Of course, other guests are these people’s children, who eventually become important characters in their own right.

The novel covers the time from 1895 to the end of World War I, although the war is covered only briefly. Over this time period, Byatt not only tells us the stories of her many characters but also checks in to events in the lives of actual figures of the time, for example, Oscar Wilde, Emma Pankhurst, H. G. Wells, and Rupert Brooke.

This novel is interesting both on an intimate level, as the children discover their parents’ secrets and have their own, and on the broader, more ambitious level of a portrait of the age. There are casualties in this novel, and it is at times very dark, the way Olive likes her stories.

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Review 1418: Sister Noon

I found the first two books I read by Karen Joy Fowler slight, but then she blew me away with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. So, I thought I’d give Sister Noon a chance.

In 1890’s San Francisco, Lizzie Hayes is a spinster who spends her time doing good works. In particular, she is treasurer for the Ladies Relief and Protection Society, or the Brown Ark, a home that takes in orphaned children or children whose parents can’t keep them. To Lizzie comes the notorious Mary Ellen Pleasant, a woman about whom there are many rumors. She brings Lizzie a child, Jenny Hijab, who needs shelter.

After Lizzy calls on Mrs. Pleasant in the House of Mystery to report on Jenny, her friends go to great lengths to warn her about the acquaintance. Lizzy is fascinated by this household, where Mrs. Pleasant seems to be in charge of Mrs. Bell’s house even though Mr. Bell was previously her lover, and Mr. Bell is never present. Mrs. Bell has told her some bizarre stories but not more bizarre than the ones she’s already heard. Actually, although Lizzie is not inclined to pursue the acquaintance, she finds there are things she needs to know.

This novel moves back and forth in time to tell its stories about the wild days of early San Francisco, but this doesn’t help with the lack of focus I felt when reading the book. I found myself losing patience as it slowly meandered to its point. It finally begins getting somewhere about 20 pages from the end. Normally, a book that develops slowly doesn’t bother me, but this one made me impatient. I think this was because I wasn’t that interested in the characters.

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Review 1417: The Web of Days

I think it is interesting to reread a book I read long ago to see if or how my reaction to it has changed. This can work both ways—I can appreciate a book I disliked the first time or see the flaws in a book I loved. I remember reading the gothic romance The Web of Days when I was a teenager, borrowed from a neighbor’s house for whom I was babysitting. After the kids went to bed, I would pull it out for the next installment. I liked the book and had a crush on its romantic hero. So, what did I think this time? More about that later.

Hester Snow arrives from the North at Seven Chimneys, a ruined plantation on one of the sea islands of Georgia just after the Civil War. She is to be a governess for Rupert LeGrand, the son of the owner of the plantation, Saint Clair LeGrand. At the house she finds an indifferent master; his mother Madame, who cares only for her food; and his wife Lorelei, who drinks too much. The house is slovenly, the fields are ruined, and the servants are insolent.

Hester believes that with hard work and oversight, Seven Chimneys could be made profitable again, and she soon seeks permission from LeGrand to see to it. When she begins to find herself successful, she becomes obsessed with seeing the plantation thrive and making a home for herself. What she doesn’t see is the truth behind the relationships between the family members at Seven Chimneys.

She is attracted to Roi, Saint’s dashing bastard half brother, but he offers a life in a cabin in Missouri. Hester thinks that will be a harsh life of drudgery and wants nothing to do with it.

First of all, this novel is so racist it took my breath away. It’s hard to tell if Lee was trying to depict the time as it was or was racist herself. However, Hester herself is racist. Even though she comes to like a couple of the African-American characters, she treats more than one of them despicably, and they are all stereotypical.

Second, in other ways Hester is not at all likable, being so obsessed with succeeding on the plantation and feeling herself so superior to the southern characters. In many ways, except for not being evil, she reminds me of the main character in one of Philippa Gregory’s early series, Wideacre. She acts fairly reprehensibly up to the very end of the novel, when she has a change of heart. Frankly, she does not deserve her happy ending.

Did I like the book? It is well written and atmospheric. It has some suspenseful scenes, and Hester finds herself in a corner. But no, not only is the racism too much for me, but the regionalism is, too, because Lee depicts most southerners as loafing crackers (she even uses the word), greedy vulgar businessmen, or effete, elitist aristocrats. This is not at all the book I remembered reading.

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Review 1388: Aurora Floyd

The heiress Aurora Floyd is the apple of her elderly father’s eye. At 19, she is dark and high-spirited, with a flashing eye and an air of pride. She has just returned from finishing school in Paris when Captain Talbot Bulstrode notices her.

From a family that prides itself on its blemishless past, Bulstrode is looking for a pure and wholesome wife. He is disdainful of Aurora’s interest in horses and racing. Altogether, he feels he would like his wife to be more like her cousin, Lucy Floyd. Nevertheless, he can’t take his eyes off Aurora even though there seems to be a shadow over her.

Aurora has another admirer, John Mellish, a large, bluff Yorkshireman who worships her at first sight. In the beginning, Aurora pays little attention to either man. Then she seems to favor Captain Bulstrode.

Aurora has a secret, however, that will threaten her happy future. It is not a difficult secret for the reader to guess, but when a murder is committed, she finds that it must come out.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was a writer of popular Victorian sensation novels, combining melodrama, intense emotion, and crime. Her best-known work is Lady Audley’s Secret, so if you are familiar with that, you know what to expect. The story evokes some true suspense, and the main characters are either likable or despicable, as intended. Occasionally, Braddon departs into little lectures, some of them loaded with literary allusions. They reminded me of some of Dickens’s writing, only I found them a little cumbersome and overbearing. Still, this novel is readable and generally moves forward at a good pace. I enjoyed it.

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