Day 1206: The Good People

Cover for The Good PeopleHannah Kent seems to be fascinated with historical true crime cases. Her Burial Rites was about a woman found guilty of murder in Iceland. The Good People is about the inhabitants of a poor, superstitious valley in Ireland in 1825.

Nóra Leahy has had a year of misfortune. Not long ago, her son-in-law arrived to tell her and her husband, Martin, that their only daughter had died. He brought with him their grandson, Micheál, to care for.

Unfortunately, Micheál at four is not the bright, babbling toddler he was the only other time they saw him. He does not seem to be able to use his limbs and does not talk. Instead, he screams all the time to be fed.

Martin cares for Micheál and gives him affection, but Nóra hides him away from the neighbors. Then Martin dies, falling down suddenly at a crossroads.

The manner of Martin’s death provokes comment but so does the hidden child.

Even after Nóra brings home a hired girl to help with the work of caring for the child, Micheál seems an unbearable burden. Nóra begins to believe that her grandson was “swept away” by the fairies, the Good People, and that she has a fairy child in his place. She consults Nance Roche, an old wise woman who treats the villagers’ ailments.

Nance herself has enemies in the valley. In particular is Kate Lynch, because Nance refuses to help her with a piseóg, or curse, against Kate’s husband, who beats her. Although Nance refuses to deal in curses, Kate leads others to talk of strange dealings when things begin to go wrong for the valley. Also, the new priest, Father Healy, has begun speaking against Nance at mass.

All of this builds a feeling of dread. Kent has beautifully evoked the way that superstition plays a part in the people’s everyday lives. We know something bad will happen; we’re just not sure what.

Although I would have read The Good People anyway, it is a novel for my Walter Scott Prize project. I found it mesmerizing.

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Day 1199: Salt Creek

Cover for Salt CreekTen years after she left Australia in 1862, Hester Finch recollects the seven years her family spent in the Coorong, at Salt Creek, southeast of Adelaide. Her father brought the family there after all of his other business ventures had failed.

Originally from genteel stock, Mrs. Finch is appalled by the rusticity of the station, as are her children. Mrs. Finch, who moved to Australia for the sake of her husband, is depressed and apathetic, so Hester, the oldest girl, must take her place doing the housework and educating the younger children. Mr. Finch considers himself a godly man who must do his duty by bringing the natives to Christianity, so they take in a mixed race boy named Tully.

Life is difficult, and it slowly gets worse. Although Hester falls in love with Charles, a young artist doing a survey of the area with his father, she decides that she will never allow her fate to be determined by another.

As Hester tries to figure out a way to leave Salt Creek without abandoning her younger brothers and sisters, events occur that make the family understand the kind of man their father is.

Some readers may need patience for the beginning of this novel, as it is mostly setting the stage for events to come. I found the plaintive tone of the novel at first a little depressing. However, just before the halfway point, events get going, and the novel becomes absolutely gripping.

Although Treloar states that the novel is based very loosely on her family’s beginnings, the characters in the novel are completely fictional except for four of them. Those characters make up a subplot that involves an actual murder.

I felt the novel lacked descriptions that would give ideas of the appearance of the place (references are made to its beauty, but I was unable to form a mental picture), but the daily existence of the characters is fully realized. This is at times a harrowing read for my Walter Scott Prize project, but it is certainly worth it.

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Day 1195: The Long Song

Cover for The Long SongSeveral years ago, I greatly enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island. So, I was happy when I saw that The Long Song was in both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects.

July is fathered upon her slave mother, Miss Kitty, by the overseer on Amity, a Jamaican sugar plantation. It is early in the 19th century, so July is a slave, too.

July and Miss Kitty are field slaves, but when July is nine years old, the master’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, takes a fancy to her. She takes July away from Miss Kitty to train her as a house slave and calls her Marguerite. The novel is written as July’s memoir, as she recalls the final days of slavery on the island and its transition to freedom.

At first the tone of this novel bothered me. It seemed too sprightly and playful for subject matter that is sometimes appalling. It really tears into its white characters, too, who are portrayed at best as hypocrites but more often much worse. Eventually, though, its sly sense of humor got to me, and I laughed out loud. Still, I did not feel as involved by this novel as I did with Small Island.

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Day 1187: Edgar & Lucy

Cover for Edgar & LucyBefore I start my review, I realized I forgot to check the spin number on Friday morning. It seems as if Classics Club always picks the number for the most obscure book on my list. This time, I get to read Le Morte D’Arthur.

* * *

Best of Five!
Eight-year-old Edgar has no idea about the terrible events that took place when he was a baby. He lives with his mother, Lucy, and his grandmother Florence, who tells him innocuous lies about Frank, his father and her son.

Lucy and Florence have not been getting along lately. Lucy, still traumatized by her husband’s death, has been drinking too much and seeing men, when old-fashioned Florence would like her to be a perpetual widow. But Florence dies, and a series of misunderstandings and accidents at the time of her death place Edgar in danger.

Although I wouldn’t describe Edgar & Lucy as a thriller, it kept me pinned to the page much like a good thriller would, and the novel has some thriller-like plot characteristics. But really, it is a thorough examination of several characters under trying circumstances. And one of them is a ghost.

This novel is highly unusual. At times, it is almost meditative while at other times it reveals its characters’ minds as almost hallucinogenically original. If you decide to read it, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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Day 1186: Toby’s Room

Cover for Toby's RoomI know I’ve talked about this before, but I find it interesting to see what the blurb writer finds to comment about a book versus the book itself. In the case of Toby’s Room, the blurb says something about a family torn apart by war. Well, World War I begins well into the novel, and the family is fairly well torn apart already.

The novel begins in 1912 when, in a weekend break from Slade, where Elinor is an art student, her relationship with her older brother Toby undergoes a shocking change. She and Toby have always been close, but they have difficulty closing the gap after this incident.

Later, shortly after the war begins, the family receives a telegram stating that Toby is missing, presumed dead. Elinor feels there is something not right about the letters she receives from his commanding officer and the chaplain. Letters to her friend Kip, who served with Toby, receive no answer. Elinor asks her friend Paul, who is home wounded, to help her find out what happened.

That makes the book sound like a mystery, but it isn’t. It is more about Elinor’s unresolved feelings for her brother, and latterly about the horrors of war.

Although Toby’s Room is a sequel to Barker’s Life Studies, and I have not read the first book, I felt myself immersed in this fully realized world. This is another situation, like with The Quality of Mercy, where I was reading the novel for my Walter Scott prize project and chose not to read the first one. Unlike The Quality of Mercy, though, I don’t think my not having read the first book affected my appreciation of the second. Although I do wish the Walter Scott prize judges would stop putting sequels on their short list, I enjoyed Toby’s Room. It examines serious issues while still capturing our attention.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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