Day 1220: Tightrope

Cover for TightropeYet again, I had no idea that Tightrope, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was a sequel until I went into Goodreads to indicate I had started reading it and saw that it was “Marian Sutro #2.” In this case, the novel seemed to recap the events of the first novel rather heavily, so I don’t think I missed anything by skipping the first book except maybe some feeling for Marian.

I found Mawer’s The Glass Room to be icy in its distance from the characters, so I wasn’t excited about reading Tightrope. It turned out to be better than I expected but not much.

Tightrope begins toward the end of World War II, when Marian Sutro returns to England. She was one of the women sent over to infiltrate Europe during the war, where she worked with the French resistance. But she was betrayed and spent the last two years in Ravensbrück. Shortly before the liberation, she and some other women managed to escape.

Because of Marian’s background, she is of interest to the British secret service. She is of interest to the Russians, too, primarily because her brother Ned is a nuclear physicist. Her own beliefs that knowledge of nuclear weapons must be shared to maintain peace also draws her into the midst of the Cold War.

This novel is narrated by Sam, the son of one of Marian’s friends, and his story contains lots of details he couldn’t have known, even though he had access to her file and she tells him parts of her story. This narrative also allows Mawer to insert a certain amount of salacious detail, as Sam has a mad adolescent crush on Marian. I think I mentioned Mawer’s fascination with labia in my last review.

Marian is essentially an unknowable character, which kept me, as a reader, from becoming very engaged with her story. It didn’t help that she seemed to be the product of some adolescent idea of a perfect woman—a beautiful woman who sleeps with just about every man she meets and cares for none of them. Yet we are to believe she cares for one, even though there is little evidence for it. I found the book blurb, which says “Marian must risk everything to protect those she loves . . .” laughable.

Quotes on the cover call Mawer “a true master of literary espionage” and call the novel “gripping.” If you want gripping, try John Le Carré or Robert Harris instead.

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Day 1218: The Singapore Grip

Cover for The Singapore GripThe Singapore Grip is the third of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which takes a sardonic look at various parts of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur is set in the nineteenth century during the Sepoy rebellion. Troubles takes place in Ireland during the Troubles in the early 20th century. The Singapore Grip is set during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II.

The novel begins in 1939. Walter Blackett is a powerful Singapore businessman whose sole concern is the profits of his company, Blackett and Webb. Despite the Allies’ need for rubber, Blackett is concerned with keeping the price up and spends his time fixing prices and manipulating the market.

His senior partner dies, and Walter awaits the arrival of Matthew Webb, his partner’s heir. Although Walter’s beautiful daughter, Joan, spends her time tormenting various young men, she readily agrees to help her father’s ambitions by marrying Matthew.

Matthew is a naive and feckless young man, whose ideals have been somewhat battered during his work for the League of Nations. Although he is chubby and unprepossessing, Joan makes a dead set for him, dismaying Ehrendorf, the previous favorite. But Matthew is more interested in Vera Chiang, a Eurasian girl who may be a prostitute or possibly a Communist or maybe neither.

This novel is peopled with Farrell’s usual peculiar characters, including a figure from Troubles, Major Brendan Archer. As Singapore begins descending into chaos, the Major attempts to organize a volunteer fire department. But his efforts are hampered by a lack of interest, as the Singaporians concentrate on selling things and the Blacketts focus all their activities on a Jubilee celebration of the company.

Farrell’s cynical look at the last years of the British in Singapore is occasionally hilarious, with a dark and deadpan humor. It also contains much to consider, as various characters discuss the benefits of colonization (whether there are any), theories of commerce, and other ideas that obsess them.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeI know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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Day 1209: The Red House Mystery

Cover for The Red House MysteryWho knew that A. A. Milne wrote novels for adults, let alone mysteries? I didn’t, until Simon of Stuck in a Book reviewed The Red House Mystery. Then I saw it advertised in Folio Society, of which I am a member.

Our detective is an amateur, Antony Gillingham, who comes on the scene accidentally. He is visiting in the area when he remembers his friend, Bill Beverley, is staying at the Red House, a guest of Mark Ablett, so he decides to drop by. He finds a man hammering on the library door. This man is Mr. Cayley, Mr. Ablett’s secretary, who reports he has heard a gunshot from within the locked office.

Cayley and Antony break in and find the body of a man who has been shot in the face. Cayley identifies him as Robert Ablett, the ne’er-do-well brother of Mark, just arrived from Australia. Mark Ablett, who had been in the room with his brother, is nowhere to be found. The police decide Robert has been murdered and begin looking for Mark.

Antony begins noticing clues about the crime. Enlisting his friend Bill as his Watson, he decides to solve the mystery.

With typical Golden Age verve, Milne makes this puzzle just about as complicated as possible. I usually don’t hope to solve these mysteries because of that. However, I did guess at part of the solution and then decided it wasn’t possible. Apparently, it was.

What I enjoyed about the book was the congenial duo solving the crime. Antony is bright and witty, and Bill is jovial and loyal. The Red House Mystery makes a fun light read.

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Day 1208: Zelda

Cover for ZeldaZelda is Nancy Milford’s famous biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. It is meticulously researched and beautifully written. The book was Milford’s dissertation for Columbia University, and she later went on to write other noted biographies, such as Savage Beauty about Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Zelda’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald is legendary, and I was happy to finally learn the truth of it, as I’ve heard half-truths for years and read them in fiction. I was especially interested to contrast this biography with Z, Therese Ann Fowler’s novel about Zelda.

One of the fundamental problems of the Fitzgerald’s relationship was Zelda’s feeling of a lack of purpose combined with Scott’s breathtaking assumption that her entire life could be co-opted for his fiction. Early in their marriage, Zelda had an opportunity to publish her diaries, but Scott claimed them, saying he needed them for his fiction. Later, when she began writing, he feuded with her over her right to her own history, telling her that he was the professional, she just an amateur. Of course, he did not cause all their problems. There was his drinking and her crippling mental illness. But I could see why Zelda would feel like she was being erased.

Although the biography contained a little too much quoting from their fiction for my taste—points were made over and over—still, this is a truly revelatory biography and well worth reading if you have an interest in these people or their time.

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Day 1207: White Houses

Cover for White HousesAmy Bloom’s latest novel, White Houses, leads me to a topic that I’ve mentioned before. I think it is important, when writing fiction about real people, to keep their characters true to that of the original person. Historians disagree about whether Eleanor Roosevelt’s warm friendship with Lorena Hickok was a full-blown lesbian affair. Those who believe it was, base their supposition on Eleanor’s exuberant letters. Those who do not, base it on Eleanor’s dislike of being touched. I think that’s significant, and I think people these days misinterpret the tone of letters from earlier times, when friends expressed themselves more affectionately than we do.

Amy Bloom has chosen to believe that the women’s relationship was a lesbian affair, and that’s what White Houses is about—and all that it’s about. It is written from the point of view of Lorena Hickok—or Hicky, as she was called.

link to NetgalleyThe novel paints a relatively convincing portrait of Eleanor, although I don’t buy the bed bouncing, and it is a sad story and ultimately touching. Its premise, though, makes me uncomfortable for the reasons stated above.

Franklin does not appear in a positive light, and in terms of their marriage, he should not. The character study of Hicky as a downright, plain-speaking reporter who gave up her career for love is a good one, and one I can believe.

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