Review 1522: A Single Thread

Violet Speedwell’s fiancé was killed during the First World War, and twenty years later she’s one of the many single women in Winchester. Even though there are so many, they haven’t gained any respect, it seems. Violet has managed to free herself from her difficult mother by arranging a work transfer from Southampton to Winchester, but so far she hasn’t made much of a life for herself.

When she stumbles upon a private ceremony in Winchester Cathedral, she gets interested in the work of the broderers, a group of women who embroider kneelers and seat cushions for the cathedral. She joins the group and soon has made friends with an office worker because of it. Although Violet is at first hyper aware of other people’s attitudes, through her new friendships she begins to become more accepting and take more risks.

I was reasonably interested in Violet’s journey, but this novel seemed unfocused to me. For example, although people are inconsistent, Violet’s extreme awareness of what other people think does not seem to mesh well with a woman who occasionally goes out to pick up men for sex. This characteristic seems much too modern for the woman Violet was at the beginning of the book, although the affair at the end is more plausible. Also, as to the two preoccupations of the novel, embroidery and bell ringing, it was as though Chevalier couldn’t decide which to write about. She did a better job at bell ringing than did Dorothy Sayers in The Nine Tailors, which I found incomprehensible (not the mystery, just the information about the bells), but I think that perhaps two focuses is one too many.

Maybe to Chevalier the cathedral said cushions and bells to her, but she wasn’t really writing about the cathedral. In any case, I’m trying to poorly express that I found this novel mildly interesting but also unsatisfying.

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Review 1519: Perdita

On holiday from his university job, Garth Hellyer takes on a task for the Longevity Project by calling on Marged Brice, who is supposed to be 134 years old. Garth can hardly believe she can be as old as she says she is, and although she has a birth certificate, she has no other form of identification. Marged says she would like to die, but she has to find someone to take care of Perdita.

Marged gives Garth her journals, and he begins to read the fascinating story of a girl attuned to nature, in particular to Georgian Bay off her home on the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario. The journals begin in 1887 and tell the story of the girl’s love for the bay and for George Stewart, an artist.

Meanwhile, Garth becomes reaquainted with Clare, a neighbor on the bay. She, it appears, has cared for him since they were teenagers, but he has never paid attention to her.

This novel is atmospheric with a strong sense of place, particularly the older story, and interesting, although I sometimes wondered when we would get to Perdita. It’s a long novel at 400+ pages, and it takes a long time to get to Perdita, but it kept my interest. If anything, the explanation of Perdita seemed a little unclear. I almost think I would prefer this as a ghost story, which it is not. It does have a faint ecological message.

I’ve said I’m getting tired of the split timeframe novel, but it didn’t bother me for this one and was, in fact, necessary. On the other hand, the historical portion of the novel was definitely the more important.

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Review 1517: House of Glass

Clara is born with bones so fragile that as she grows, they can snap for the slightest reason. Her mother and stepfather keep her inside a home filled with padded corners until she is an adult. When they judge that she is finally able to come out, she is slightly misshapen through injuries that didn’t heal well.

Shaken after her mother’s death, Clara finds comfort in visiting Kew Gardens and learning about the plants. Her voracious curiosity tends her to spend a lot of time talking to the foreman of the glasshouse. Eventually, he offers her a job. A wealthy man wants to establish his own glasshouse to rival that of Kew. Will she take a job overseeing the planting and establishment of this garden?

Clara decides to take the job at Shadowbrook, where she is received by the housekeeper, Mrs. Bale. The owner of the house, Mr. Fox, is often away on business, and even when he is home he doesn’t like to be disturbed in his rooms on the upper floor.

Clara finds there are rumors in the village about the house and its former occupants, the Pettigrews. Mrs. Bale seems to be under some strain, and she eventually reports that the house is haunted by Vivenne Pettigrew. Clara doesn’t believe in ghosts and begins trying to learn about the Pettigrews. Those who are willing to talk about Vivienne seem to be describing a different person than she imagines from the few words spoken by those who knew her.

Ever since Fletcher’s marvelous Corrag, I have been waiting for her to write something as good. This novel comes very close. It starts out as a ghost story but goes much farther, exploring women’s role in pre-World War I society. It is atmospheric and wonderfully written, with an assertive and appealing heroine. I recommend it highly.

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Review 1508: The Gallows Pole

In a remote Yorkshire valley in 1767, David Hartley and his brothers call together all the clippers in the area. Clippers have for centuries been debasing the coin of the realm by clipping edges off to make counterfeit coin. Hartley is already known as King David in the region for his control of the valley that his home lies above on the moor, but now he declares that they will all become rich by becoming systematic. All the people in the area will send him coins, and in return they will all get a portion of the proceeds. To make more money, he brings in a man called the Alchemist, who will make more convincing coins. Any man who refuses to participate is brought into line.

Within two years, this gang has caused enough disturbance in the local economy that an exciseman, William Deighton, is brought in to try to bring the Hartleys and their gang to law. James Broadbent, a member of the gang who thinks he hasn’t been rewarded enough, decides to turn informant.

On the one hand, this novel is at times lyrical, especially in evoking the landscape, and it is based on true events. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the subject or the brutality. There is a lot of fascination in our society with people who are essentially gangsters that I don’t share. Although Myers tells most of the story in a fair-handed way, he does seem to come down a bit on the side of the thieves, even as he recounts some crimes against innocent men. This book won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize for 2018, but I’m not sure it’s the one I would have picked.

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Review 1501: Pachinko

In 1932, 16-year-old Sunja is fascinated by Hansee, a debonair Korean who lives in Japan but visits her small village in Korea to buy fish. Sunja has an affair with him, but when she learns she is pregnant, he tells her he has a wife and children in Japan but wants her to be his Korean wife. While realizing she will disgrace her family, she does not agree.

Isak, a frail Christian minister, comes to stay at Sunja’s mother’s boarding house on his way to Japan, but he soon falls ill with tuberculosis. Sunja and her mother Yangjin nurse him back to health. When he understands Sunja’s predicament, he offers to marry her to give her child a father. So, the couple leave for Japan, where the novel follows the fates of them and their descendents for the next fifty plus years.

At the time of the beginning of the novel, Japan ruled Korea, and the Japanese treated the Koreans as second-class citizens in their own country. In Japan, the Koreans are considered dirty and lazy and are forced to live in ghettos. They are discriminated against, and most are not allowed to become citizens even if born there.

This novel is an interesting story about the difficulties Koreans had living in Japan. It is the type of novel that is more interested in what happens to this family, though, than in creating well-rounded characters. I liked it but did not love it.

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Review 1495: #1920Club! The Bridal Wreath

When I saw The Bridal Wreath in a list of books published in 1920, I thought the 1920 Club would be a perfect opportunity to reread it and judge whether I wanted to revisit the trilogy. It had been many years since I read it, and I could remember little about it.

The Bridal Wreath is the first book of Sigrid Undset’s renowned trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. It is the story of the life of a fourteenth century Norwegian girl.

Kristen is the daughter of a depressed mother, Ragnfrid, and Lavrans, an upright, kindly farmer of good estate. Kristin grows up her father’s favorite, and as a young girl, she is disposed to try to always do what is right.

When she is fifteen, her family betrothes her to Simon Darre, a young man who is good natured and kind, but during her engagement year, she meets Erlend Nikulaussön, an older man of poor reputation although of better family than Kristin’s. He and Kristin decide to marry despite Simon and Eline, the woman who deserted her husband for Erlend and bore him two children. When Lavrans learns of this, although he doesn’t know all, he is unwilling to grant permission for their marriage, afraid he will be throwing his daughter’s happiness away for an unworthy husband.

The novel is rich in detail, and Kristin’s life seems fully realized. Moreover, the characters are complexly human. I enjoyed this novel even more the second time around.

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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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Review 1489: The Water Dancer

Hiram Walker is a slave on a Virginia plantation with a photographic memory and a talent for mimicry. As a boy, he attracts the attention of the master, who is also his father. His father has Hiram educated for a year, and the naïve boy imagines he might take an important place on the plantation, but the master’s intention is simply to have Hiram keep his heir, Maynard, out of trouble.

One day on the way back from town, the carriage, being driven recklessly by Maynard, goes into the river. Maynard is drowned, and Hiram wakes up in a field far away from the river. Hiram begins to fear he’ll be sold off to Maynard’s fiancée, Corinne. So, he plots an escape for himself and his master’s brother’s concubine, Sophia.

The Water Dancer has aspirations to literature, and that was one of my problems with it. Occasionally high-flown prose runs from the lyrical to the clichéd. Some of the conversations are absurdly unlikely. One of Coates’s affectations was for the slaves to call themselves the Tasked, which seems to be hardly authentic; in any case, I could find no other such use of the word.

Sometimes, the action slows almost to a halt. For example, Hiram falls into the water on page one and doesn’t come out until about page 100, during which Coates provides background. I’ve run into approaches like this before lately, and all I can say is that something like this that works in a movie doesn’t translate well to fiction, where you are reading for hours over a time that is supposed to be a few minutes.

Coates’s goal here isn’t to tell about the cruelties of slavery so much as to put his tale on a higher plane. He also introduces an element of speculative fiction.

I struggled with this book for about a week and decided to quit halfway through. At that point it was becoming clear that Sophia would have a bigger role, but her character was so little defined that I felt she was almost a MacGuffin. I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with Coates.

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Review 1485: Bitter Orange

Best of Ten!
Frances, on her deathbed in some sort of institution, remembers the events of a summer 20 years before, in 1969, when she came to know her only friends. Frances’s mother has recently died when she takes a job at a crumbling mansion called Lyntons where she is to report on any interesting architectural features on the grounds to its new owner. There she meets Peter, who has been similarly employed to evaluate the house and its contents, and Cara, his wife.

Cara and Peter befriend Frances during a heady summer of near camping out in the destroyed house. The three soon begin picnicking and enjoying themselves while Cara tells Frances fascinating stories about their previous  lives.

There is clearly something a little overstrung and off about Cara, but Frances is entranced by the friendship she has never had before and also falling in love with Peter. Even when the two show they are not particularly honest, she is not dissuaded, despite hints from her other friend, Victor, the vicar.

This novel is wildly atmospheric while somehow remaining quiet. There are odd, unexplained touches—a telescope inserted into the floor of Frances’s attic bedroom, so that she can see what happens in the bathroom below, imagined smells, noises, and glimpses of faces in the attic, suggesting a haunting. Slowly, we realize that Frances has her own problems.

This is a haunting novel, evocatively written, about loneliness and longing, about the fathomless qualities of guilt. I was riveted by it.

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Review 1482: Grace

In the midst of the Irish famine, Grace’s mother awakens her in the middle of the night and hacks off her hair. She tells her she must go out as a boy to get money for the family. Besides, Boggs, who lets the family stay in their house in exchange for sex with her mother, has been eyeing Grace lately. So, Grace is cast out to fend for herself, wandering through a country thronged with starving people, a country that’s becoming more and more desolate.

From the first words of this novel, you know you are reading something different. The prose is beautiful, mesmerizing, occasionally hallucinogenic, as Grace goes through one experience after another, haunted by the people she loses along the way.

What an experience it was to read this book. I read it for my Walter Scott project. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have come across except for that, and I’m grateful to have read it.

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