Review 1347: A Place Beyond Courage

Cover for A Place Beyond CourageIn 12th century England, John FitzGilbert is the marshal for King Henry. He is an astute politician and a masterful organizer. FitzGilbert’s comfortable position is threatened, however, after Henry’s death. Henry has made all of his men pledge fealty to his daughter, Matilda, upon the event of his death, but he does not affirm his successor before his death. Many of Henry’s men prefer to follow Stephen, Henry’s likable nephew, after his death rather than recognize Matilda as queen or even as regent for her young son, Henry. The result is the period of English history called the Anarchy.

At first, John throws in his fortunes with Stephen, but he eventually recognizes that Stephen is a weak ruler, too swayed by his closest advisers. In particular, Stephen fails to reward John for his successes in battle. So, John switches sides to Matilda, along with other discontented men.

John is also unhappy in his marriage. He married Aline, his innocent young ward. Aline is painfully shy and seems totally unsuited for her position. She takes little interest in anything but the church.

A Place Beyond Courage is moderately interesting, but I feel it suffers from a trait common to historical fiction about actual characters. It tries to follow too faithfully the events of FitzGilbert’s life, resulting in a series of brief scenes instead of a more integrated novel.

Chadwick has also taken a character historically reviled because he gave his son over as a hostage with a famous speech that boils down to “There can be more where that came from” and depicted him sympathetically. Whether he deserves this treatment is questionable. Chadwick says he is know to have been gentle with women and children, but he sets aside Aline, his wife of many years and mother of his son, a woman he married for her fortune, for Sybilla, a young, beautiful woman the marriage with whom brings peace and useful connections. To justify this, Chadwick makes Aline unfit for her position and Sybilla so eminently more suitable that in the book this relationship is telegraphed for years before they even meet. Do any of these people actually deserve how Chadwick treats them? I’m not sure. Certainly, FitzGilbert seems mostly driven by ambition to me.

Making interpretations like this is the purview of a historical novelist, certainly, but most are more cautious than this. In any case, these doubts of mine are just thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading. My main objection is how Chadwick crams 20 years of events into a long series of short, staccato scenes. Few of the characters are very fleshed out because of this approach.

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Review 1332: Fire from Heaven

Cover for Fire from HeavenIt seems like I’m in the middle of a lot of trilogies lately. I just wrote up my review of the last of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy (coming soon) and in two weeks the review of the first book in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy will appear. I actually just finished reading the second book in that trilogy (review coming in a few months) and liked it enough to purchase her Levant Trilogy. Now, here’s the beginning of another trilogy. Fire from Heaven is the first book in the great Mary Renault’s trilogy about the life of Alexander the Great. Renault, of course, is known for the historical accuracy, admired by authors and classicists, of her novels set in Ancient Greece.

Fire from Heaven follows the life of Alexander from the age of four to nineteen, when he became king of Macedon. His life is plagued by the battles between his mother, Olympia, allegedly a sorceress, and his father, King Philip. Philip’s crime is to have taken additional wives, even though Olympia is at total enmity with him. She sees this as a mortal affront and teaches her children to hate him. She is also cagey about whether Philip is actually Alexander’s father, hinting that he is not.

As Alexander gets older and begins learning about fighting and diplomacy from his father, they begin to understand each other. Olympia’s machinations and Philip’s womanizing continually create problems and misunderstandings, however.

An important person to Alexander is his friend Hephaistion, who becomes his lover. The two are inseparable, and Alexander is fascinated by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a group of soldiers composed of pairs of lovers, said to fight the more doggedly because of it.

This novel is rich in the intrigues among the city-states of the area, the myths surrounding Alexander’s life, and the depth of characterization. I read it long ago but found I didn’t remember it well and am pleased to have begun rereading this trilogy.

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Review 1329: Varina

Cover for VarinaVarina is one of those books that makes me wish Goodreads allowed half stars, because it is better than the books I’ve given three stars (my okay or ho-hum rating) but it’s not quite as good as many books I’ve rated four stars. It is interesting, though, the story of Varina Davis, Jeff Davis’s young wife.

The novel begins when Varina, or V as she is called, as an old woman meets James, a young African-American boy she raised with her own children. At the time of the fall of the Confederacy, Jimmy was taken from her after she was captured.

James comes to see V because he remembers very little of that time and has read some things in a book he wants to ask her about. She is happy to see him, because all of her children have died. He is the last one left. The novel skips backward and forward through incidents in her life as she and James hold a series of conversations.

I found this novel both interesting and touching. I know very little about Jeff Davis and knew nothing of his wife. V seems to have been an unconventional and spirited woman. She led a difficult and sad life.

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Day 1299: Flush: A Biography

Cover for FlushI admit to feeling rather perplexed by Flush, which seems to be a light-hearted biography of Elizabeth Barrett’s pet dog. It was clear to me that a lot more was going on than a story about a dog. The introduction to my Persephone edition by Sally Beauman draws parallels between Flush’s life and Barrett’s—and Virginia Woolf’s own life.

Flush is a cocker spaniel, a hunting dog, given to Elizabeth Barrett as a gift. Woolf is clear about how Flush’s life on Wimpole Street becomes one of constraint and even neuroticism as the lap dog of a constrained, restricted, and hypochondriacal Elizabeth Barrett.

The slant the novel puts on the famous romance between Barrett and Robert Browning is also very interesting. Flush is immediately jealous of Browning and tries to bite him twice. From being loved and terrifically spoiled by Barrett, he learns he has to take second place.

Now to get to the source of my perplexity. Just in terms of mistreatment of dogs, this novel was not, to me, the one fondly referred to by others over the years. Woolf’s doggy hero is restricted by Elizabeth just as she was by her father. To add interest, though, there are sly digs at social strata and Victorian life throughout.

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Day 1224: The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire

Cover for The Alphabet of Heart's DesireThe Alphabet of Heart’s Desire is about an incident in the early life of Thomas De Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bare bones of fact are that De Quincey, as a young man, was given an allowance to use in his travels around the country, which he stopped getting when he fell out of touch with his family. Destitute, he was rescued by Anne, a prostitute. This novel tells their stories, along with that of Tuah, a Malay slave who is taken in by Archie, who sells used clothing.

I had a lot of trouble reading this novel and kept putting it aside to read other books. I almost decided to quit reading it when I realized I was 80% done, so I finished it. My problem was that I didn’t find any of the three major characters, De Quincey, Anne, and Tuah, particularly interesting. Here is a situation where the author tries to invoke interest in his characters by making bad things happen to them, trying to raise our sympathy from these unfortunate events rather than from the characters’ own personalities.

link to NetgalleyI also found this fictionalized interpretation of a short period in De Quincey’s life to be relatively pointless. All it serves is to wrap up Anne’s fate in a pretty bow. In reality, she disappeared into the London stews.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I 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 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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