Review 1603: The Glass Woman

It’s November 1686 in Stykkishólmur, Iceland. After an earthquake, the ice splits open and disgorges a woman’s body.

Three months earlier, Rósa and her mother are near starvation after the death of her father Magnús, the Bishop of Skálholt. He could have been a powerful and wealthy man, but he preferred to give away all he owned. Despite his generosity, no one is willing to give a single thing to help the women except Páll, Rósa’s childhood friend.

Then Rósa’s mother hears that Jón Eiriksson, a powerful man from a village in the north, is looking for a wife. There are weird rumors about the death of his first wife, but with her mother coughing blood, Rósa decides to marry him.

When she arrives in Stykkishólmur, however, Jón seems to have become unexpectedly stern. He hardly spends any time with her and wants her to stay away from the village. The loft in the house is locked, and he tells her to stay out of it. The villagers seem to be afraid of him and his apprentice, Pétur. Rósa, alone night after night, thinks she hears something moving in the loft and imagines someone moving through her rooms at night.

This Icelandic version of the Bluebeard story is highly atmospheric, and I was very interested in it. However, in some ways I found it unsatisfying. I didn’t like the ending and thought that the situation could have been cleared up easily with the truth. Also, the character of Páll is undefined. At first, it seems he will be a minor character, but he ends up being more important, and as such, should have a personality. Overall, though, I found the customs and beliefs of the time and place interesting, and I liked Rósa.

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Review 1599: The Mayor of Casterbridge

At a small county fair in the early 1800’s, a drunken Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor. Twenty years later, his wife and her daughter come seeking him, the sailor having disappeared at sea and the two being nearly destitute. When they arrive at Casterbridge, they find he is wealthy and the town’s mayor.

To his credit, Henchard looked for his wife and child twenty years ago, but they had emigrated to Canada. Wanting to make amends, he suggests that Susan Newson, as his wife calls herself, and Elizabeth Jane stay in Casterbridge. He will appear to court Susan and will marry her.

At the same time, he meets a young Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, and likes him so much that he offers him a job. But Henchard has a hasty temper and a jealous, unforgiving nature, and as Donald becomes successful, Henchard takes a dislike to him that grows into enmity. A final issue is caused by another incident from Henchard’s past.

Henchard is not a likable character. Although he is often repentent of his actions, his temper creates situations, like the sale of his wife, that lead to his downfall. This is an interesting novel for Hardy, whose main characters, although flawed, are usually more sympathetic. Still, it is an absorbing and dramatic story about a man who is his own worst enemy.

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Review 1598: The Haunting of L.

In 1927, Peter Duvette accepts a job as a photographer’s assistant in Churchill, Manitoba. The day he reaches the remote town, he meets his boss, Vienna Linn, and Linn’s fianceé, Kala Murie. Kala is in the middle of a lecture about spirit photography, in which the spirit of the deceased person appears in photographs of family or friends. After the lecture, Linn and Murie are getting married.

So, Peter is surprised when that night he ends up in bed with the bride. It’s not too long before Kala tells him that Linn makes money by causing disasters that he photographs for a rich client. So far, these disasters have mostly been train wrecks.

Quirky isn’t exactly the word for this novel, because it is about a truly evil person. But it is certainly hard to predict where it will go. It’s eerie and atmospheric while still presenting a moving love story. This is the third book I’ve read by Howard Norman, and I’ve greatly enjoyed them all.

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Review 1592: The Night Watchman

There is always something that keeps my attention in Louise Erdrich’s books, although often they are very sad. In 1953, the United States Congress announced a program of “emancipation” of more than 100 First Nations tribes that was expressed as a program to put indigenous people on an equal footing with other Americans but was actually a way to yet again abrogate treaties and take land. Louise Erdrich’s grandfather helped save the Turtle Mountain Chippewa from this fate all while working full-time as a night watchman. The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s novel about this event.

Thomas Wazhashk, a member of the tribal council, receives a copy of the bill and figures out its intent from its bland, bureaucratic language. He gets the council to collect signatures on a petition and begins collecting information to support the tribe’s stance that its members are too poor to care for themselves so local authorities will have to take on the burden if the federal government doesn’t, this obviously a ploy to get support from state and local authorities to oppose the bill. While he works, he is visited by an owl and the ghost of an old friend who died as a boy after being imprisoned in the basement of a state boarding school.

As usual with Erdrich, aside from the main plot, the novel is full of interesting characters and subplots. Pixie Paranteau takes time off from work to try to find her sister Vera, who has vanished in Minneapolis after leaving to marry her boyfriend. On the train, she encounters Wood Mountain, a young boxer on his way to a fight, but when the fight is cancelled, he decides to make sure Pixie is all right.

Millie Cloud is the woman whom Thomas asks to share the results of the survey on the living conditions of the tribe that she wrote for her doctoral dissertation. She is socially awkward and dresses in geometric patterns.

This novels felt more hopeful than some of Erdrich’s even though it also contained scenes of brutality. My attention was engrossed by it.

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Review 1588: This Is Happiness

My first introduction to Niall Williams was his wonderful novel History of the Rain. That was so good that I confess to having found Four Letters of Love slightly disappointing, just because it wasn’t as good. This Is Happiness, however, is a gem of a novel.

As an old man, Noe Crowe recollects the summer when he was 17. He has been banished to the small village of Faha in West Clare County, because he left seminary school. While living with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, he’s supposed to find his way back to God.

First, it stops raining, in a village where it always rains. Then Christie arrives to help install the electricity. Christie, we sense, is a charismatic individual with lots of stories to tell. He has come with a mission, and it’s not electricity. He has heard Annie Moonie lives in Faha, and he wants to apologize to her for leaving her at the altar 50 years before.

In the meantime, Noe, in a village studded with eccentric characters, finds he has fallen in love with Sophie Troy, the doctor’s youngest daughter, or is he in love with Sophie and Charlie Troy, or is it with Sophie, Charlie, and Ronnie, all three of the doctor’s daughters?

The novel starts out funny and charming and it just gets better. Hoorah for another fine book by Niall Williams.

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Review 1587: Captain Paul

Quite a few years ago now, I bought the collected works of several 19th century writers in ebook form from Delphi Classics and resolved to read them all, starting from the earliest works. I didn’t get very far—read one or two novels by each—before life got in the way of my project and I forgot it. But recently, I thought I would occasionally interject one of those novels into my regular reading, and the first one is Captain Paul by Alexandre Dumas, his second novel.

Now, this novel is quiet peculiar, for Dumas was inspired for it by James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pilot, which is about John Paul Jones. I haven’t read The Pilot, but it seems that Dumas has taken some liberties with Jones’s life if not with Cooper’s book. In particular, while naming his character Paul Jones, as Cooper apparently does in his book, and using some actual episodes from John Paul Jones’s life, he makes him a Frenchman (he was, of course, Scottish-American), and he gives him an entirely fictional but romantic lineage as the illegitimate son of a French count (although JPJ was born on an estate, the son of a gardener, so maybe Dumas was making some sort of assertion about his birth).

In the novel, Captain Paul, unaccountably donning two disguises in the first few pages, takes onboard his ship a prisoner of France that he is supposed to deliver to the prison island of Cayenne. The crew is not supposed to speak to the prisoner, but his conduct during a battle with an English ship leads Captain Paul to ask for the story of the prisoner, Hector de Lusignan.

Six months later, Captain Paul visits Count Emmanuel d’Auray, who originally delivered Lusignan to the ship, to tell him he knows he imprisoned Lusignan unlawfully. Lusignan’s crime was to fall in love, without fortune, with d’Auray’s sister, Marguerite, and have a child with her. While d’Auray got rid of Lusignan, his mother, the Marchioness, removed Marguerite’s child. Now, they are trying to force her to marry a fop who has promised d’Auray a commission. Captain Paul announces his intention to get Lusignan a pardon and remove Marguerite’s child from wherever it is hidden. But when he learns Marguerite still loves Lusignan, he decides to help the lovers.

There are more secrets to come, including Captain Paul’s own identity.

This is a short, fast-moving novel once you get over your bemusement about poor John Paul Jones. It is entertaining, but after all the action is over, Dumas couldn’t resist adding an Epilogue, which tells us how everyone ended up and also contains more of Jones’s real (maybe) exploits. The Epilogue, therefore, is about as long as two or three of the chapters, and everything bogs down tremendously. This is the addition of an inexperienced writer, and we all know he improved.

By the way, I believe that the figure depicted on the cover above (which is not the edition I read) is actually supposed to be Alexandre Dumas’s father, who was a famous general.

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Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

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Review 1578: After the Party

In 1938, Phyllis Forrester and her family return to England from a long period of living abroad. Phyllis has been yearning to be near her two sisters, so they settle down on the Sussex coast.

Through her sisters, Phyllis gets involved with two different sets of people, with some overlap. Her socialite and snobbish sister Patricia introduces her to an upperclass group interested in social events. Her activist sister Nina is involved in the new Peace Party that runs educational classes and camps for youngsters. It’s not too difficult to figure out that their revered leader is Oswald Mosley.

It’s difficult to decide whether Phyllis is an unreliable narrator through innocence, obliviousness, or lying. I think most likely both of the first two. Certainly, this novel downplays the most negative aspects of Mosley’s party. Anti-semitism is mentioned but is not emphasized, and Phyllis denies the group is Fascist, which of course is what Mosley thought would be best for England. No mention at all is made of the blackshirts or links to Germany. But perhaps Connolly trapped herself into this point of view by using Phyllis as the narrator. In any case, for me the effect was a sort of whitewashing of this movement.

The novel starts slowly and takes a long time to get to its meat, which is the imprisonment of Phyllis and her husband without any due process. If Phyllis can be believed, her activities were fairly benign and this imprisonment was uncalled for. It also involves a betrayal.

I didn’t have much sympathy for Phyllis or really anyone in her circle. The socialites early on are involved in an incident of throwing a terrified pig off a balcony, which some of them seem to think is funny. Although Phyllis doesn’t seem to think it was funny, she also doesn’t seem horrified by it, either. It’s not clear to me what the author’s intent is toward any of her characters unless she is criticizing the class as a whole, both in their leisure and political activities. If so, the criticism is muted.

Periodically, we hear from Phyllis in 1979 when she is being interviewed by someone. If anything, her views have become more right wing. I found this novel rather unsatisfying. Is it a sympathetic one for someone unfairly imprisoned or does it chillingly depict these upperclass people? The novel is one I read for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1576: Smile of the Wolf

Best of Ten!
During a long winter night, Kjaran, a skjald, or poet, tells his host, Gunnar, about stories of a ghost on the farm of the recently deceased Hrapp Osmundsson. Gunnar, a Viking who retired to a farm and family, decides they should go kill the ghost.

At Hrapp Osmundsson’s farm, they find a ghost and challenge him to a battle. Gunnar kills him, and only then do they realize he is a neighbor, Erik Haraldsson, dressed as a ghost. He had been conspiring with Vigdis, the widow, to scare the neighbors off their lands so they could take them.

According to Icelandic law, the death would call for blood money paid to the man’s relatives, perhaps followed by a feud. But Vigdis urges the men not to report the death because of the shame to Erik of his deception. To not report the death is a worse crime than the killing, but Kjaran and Gunnar agree.

They soon learn what a mistake they’ve made, because Vigdis comes to Gunnar’s house and demands he put aside his wife and children and marry her. Gunnar refuses, and Vigdis begins making trouble that results in a feud and outlawry for Kjaran.

This gripping tale set in 10th century Iceland is modeled after the Icelandic sagas. Kjaran tells his story to someone who remains unidentified until the end. It is beautifully written, a memorable novel that is heart-breaking and powerful.

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Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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