Review 1774: The Silent Companions

In the mid-1800’s, a badly burned Elsie Bainbridge is confined to an asylum. She is said to be dangerous. She cannot speak and has not been able to tell what happened to her. Her doctor suggests that writing her version may save her from being executed.

In 1635, Josiah and Anne Bainbridge excitedly begin preparing for the arrival at their home, The Bridge, of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Josiah decides, however, that their daughter Hetta will not participate in the festivities. Hetta was born with a deformed tongue, and Anne blames herself, because she took herbs to conceive when her doctors said she could not.

Elsie’s written account begins when she arrives at The Bridge to live there after her husband’s unexpected death. She finds the house decrepit and the people in the neighborhood unwelcoming. Then she and her companion, Sarah, find the silent companions, some wooden cut-out figures that appear lifelike.

This novel seemed as if it was going to be a good old creep fest. It was certainly a ghost story, but I prefer something—I was going to say that could actually happen, but that’s silly. I guess I prefer something more subtle without freakish gory events.

As far as the approach taken to the material is concerned, although all the chapters except the ones set in the asylum are supposed to be written, the later ones as Elsie’s account and the earlier as a diary, neither of them are convincing as such.

Although I make a final caveat that I don’t believe the doctor’s treatment reflects psychiatric treatment of the times, I am not saying I disliked this novel. I thought both stories were compelling, but not so much so that I didn’t think of these things while I was reading it.

The Poison Thread

This House Is Haunted

The SĂ©ance

Review 1746: The Hand That First Held Mine

It’s the mid-1950’s, and Lexie Sinclair has already made arrangements to leave her family home in Devon when she meets Innes Kent. He is a stylish magazine editor whose car has broken down on their road. When she tells him she is coming to London, he asks her to look him up. Instead, he looks her up.

Lexie takes up an exciting life as part of the Soho art scene. She and Innes are the loves of each other’s lives even though he is married. His wife has, however, taught her daughter Margo to hate Lexie even though she and Innes have been split up for years.

In present-day London, Elina and Ted have just had a baby. The birth was difficult, and Elina is having a hard time coping with the pressures of motherhood. At the same time, Ted, whose memory is notoriously poor, has begun having flashes of memory that do not correspond to what he understands of his life. Slowly, these two stories connect.

Maggie O’Farrell is always wonderful, I find, but this novel had me sobbing. It is beautiful and tragic as it explores the themes of motherhood and family secrets.

Related Posts

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

After You’d Gone

Instructions for a Heat Wave

Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Best of Ten!
I’m late to discover Maggie O’Farrell, but better late than never. I’ve read a few books by her now, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Iris Lockhart is contacted by a mental hospital, which wants to find out if she can offer a home to her great aunt, Esme, who has been incarcerated there for more than 60 years. The problem is that Iris has never heard of Esme and believes her grandmother to be an only child.

Her mother now lives in Australia and has never heard of Esme, either. When Iris tries to discuss Esme with her grandmother, Katherine, who is suffering from Alzheimers, she gets a fractured response that implies Esme is her sister. In particular, she says, “She wouldn’t let go of the baby.”

Through third-person narration from Iris’s point of view, Esme’s stream of consciousness memories, and Katherine’s more fractured ones, we learn how it came to pass that vibrant and unconventional Esme was abandoned in the hospital from the age of 16. Iris is shocked to learn that Esme was incarcerated for such outrages as insisting on keeping her hair long and dancing in her dead mother’s clothes. She learns that at the time women could be committed on the signature of one doctor.

This is a shattering, sad story about a girl whose life is stolen because she doesn’t fit in. It is spellbinding as it draws you along to learn Esme’s story. This is also fascinating tale about how sisterly love turns to jealousy and anger.

Related Posts

After You’d Gone

Instructions for a Heatwave

This Must Be the Place

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.

Related Posts

The Luminous Sea

Mortal Love

Melmoth

Review 1457: The Alice Network

I would estimate that 90% of the recent historical novels I’ve read in the last two years—and I’ve read a lot of them—are dual timeframe novels. Although I have read some excellent ones (The Weight of Ink comes to mind), I’m beginning to feel that they often indicate laziness on the author’s part. Why write a carefully researched novel about one period when you can write two hastily researched ones?

In post-World War II England, Charlie is on her way to Switzerland to a clinic for unmarried pregnant women when she ditches her mother to try to search out what became of her cousin Rose during the war. This all sounds very well, but the flippant first-person narrative style undermines everything serious about this section, turning it into, well, a historical romance.

She finds Eve, whose name as a preparer was on the reports her father received about Rose. And what are the odds that Eve is going to handle a report that mentions a name important to both her and Rose’s fates? Not too likely, I’m guessing, but that’s what happens.

In any case, then we plunge into the story of Eve, a spy during World War I, and back and forth we go for a book that is about 100 pages longer than it should be and very repetitive.

Worse, some of the detail and conversations, especially in the spy section, seem unlikely. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces in benefit of the plot rather than evolving more organically. Characters are given traits to round them out, but these traits are just sort of thrown into the mix. For example, Charlie is supposedly a math whiz, but the most complicated thing she does is figure a tip or quote the Pythagorean Theorum (which I learned in 7th grade, and I think kids learn even earlier now). Neither is exactly high mathematics.

I know this book was very popular, and I think the subject matter is interesting, but I am not a fan of the execution of this novel. I wasn’t that drawn in by Manhattan Beach, but compared to this and some of the other World War II-based novels I’ve read lately, it was a masterpiece.

Related Posts

Lilac Girls

Salt to the Sea

Manhattan Beach

Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

To paraphrase Sophia Brownrigg, a reviewer from The Guardian, The Sport of Kings is about horse racing like Moby Dick is about whales. It is ambitious—attempting to tell the history of Kentucky through that of two families—one white, wealthy, elitist, and bigotted, the other black, poor, and beleagered. It is sometimes magnificent in its prose and sometimes overblown. It is Southern Gothic, focussing on the ramifications of slavery and bigotry.

Henry Forge is the only son of a proud Kentucky family. As a youngster, he was brutalized by his father and lectured about his place in history. We have some sympathy with him until, in his teens, he commits an unforgivable act.

He rebels against his father by turning the family corn plantation into a horse farm, but the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When his wife leaves him, his daughter is nine. He takes his daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information. He is as elitist as his father—and worse.

Henrietta grows up with a talent for working with horses and a keen, cold intelligence. She also likes to pick up men for sex. Then she meets Allmon Shaughnessy, the new African-American groom, fresh from a prison program for working with horses.

Up to that point, the novel seems mostly a multigenerational saga, occasionally discoursing on geology, genetics, or history in the interludes. But after that it becomes wildly overblown at times, reminding me of the characteristics of Moby Dick that I disliked.

Like one other reader on Goodreads, every time I picked up this novel I wanted it to end. It is about deeply unpleasant characters; the least at fault—Allmon—whines his way through the novel. Its long asides are often irritating. It is sometimes beautiful and very dark, but it is often annoying.

Last year I read an essay—I can’t remember who wrote it—complaining about what I call “books only men like,” usually the ones that win awards. (I read this one for my James Tait Black prize project.) This essay commented that because a certain type of book gets attention and wins awards, now some women are beginning to write like men, using All the Birds, Singing as an example. I did not agree with the writer’s example but couldn’t help thinking of this essay while I read this novel.

Related Posts

Mother of Pearl

Wise Blood

Horse Heaven

Review 1370: Unsheltered

Unusual for Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered is a dual time-frame novel, changing centuries every other chapter. The setting is the same, though, the odd town of Vineland, New Jersey.

In the present time, Willa’s family has discovered that the house she inherited in Vineland is no asset. Both she and her husband, Iano, have recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Willa’s magazine failed, and so did the college in West Virginia where Iano was tenured. When he finally got hired in an inferior level for a one-year position, the inherited house nearby had seemed like a godsend. But now she has found that it is falling down, with part of the old house not even on a foundation, and too expensive to fix.

To make matters worse, they are the only people in the family who offered to take in Iano’s ornery dying father. Their daughter, Tig, has also unexpectedly returned from a year in Cuba. Finally, their son Zeke’s partner has committed suicide, leaving him in an apartment he can’t afford with a baby son. Willa and Iano offer him a place to stay, but what he wants is to leave his son with them.

In mid-19th century Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood has moved his new bride, Rose, back into the house she grew up in. They are also living with her mother, Aurelia, and young sister, Polly. Thatcher is delighted with his wife but is soon to find that they don’t share the same values. His position as a science teacher pays very little, but Rose and her mother continue to demand elegancies that belong to their former life, before Rose’s father went broke.

Next door, Thatcher meets Mary Treat. Rose knows her as the poor woman who was deserted by her husband, but Thatcher learns that she is a scientist, whose correspondents include Charles Darwin.

Vineland was founded as a sort of utopia by Captain Landis, but Thatcher begins to see the cracks in that utopia. One of them is his employer, who will not allow him to teach anything more than rote memorization and hates most recent scientific theories, particularly Darwin’s.

Both of these main characters are concerned with keeping shelter over their families’ heads, but while Kingsolver links the stories through Willa’s growing interest in Mary Treat, she is also able to draw many parallels between the two times. The present uncertainty in the poor economy of the Eastern Seaboard she compares to the uncertainty in the lives of Vineland’s population, of workers promised much by a man who can repossess their property if they fail. An unmistakable political figure in the present day, nicknamed by Willa The Bullhorn, bears a metaphorical resemblance to Landis, who is essentially a conman. The main characters’ housing insecurity stands for the insecurity of the entire population as a result of climate change and the death of the American dream. Kingsolver has lots to talk about.

I’m not so sure how much I liked the dual narrative. I was far more interested in the present-time story than I was in the older one. Kingsolver seemed to want to write about Mary Treat, but Treat features more as an important secondary character. And I have to say that some of Willa’s discussions with her daughter and her ruminations about those discussions border on the didactic (which we know has been a fault of Kingsolver in some other books).

Still, it is great to have another book out by Kingsolver. She can be hit or miss, but I have very fond memories of some of her books.

Related Posts

The Lacuna

The Weight of Ink

Maddaddam

Review 1344: Minds of Winter

Cover for Minds of WinterBest Book!
By coincidence, Fay Morgan, who has traveled to Tuktoyaktuk, within the Arctic Circle, to track down information about her missing grandfather, meets Nelson, a man whose brother Bert has also disappeared. Fay’s search has been jump-started by the discovery of an old chronometer disguised as a carriage clock. This instrument was carried into the Arctic by Commander Crozier, a member of Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. Fay remembers the clock, however, in her grandmother’s house when she was a child. Oddly, Bert Nilsson, Nelson’s brother, was investigating the disappearance of his own great-uncle, whose tracks seem to intersect with those of Hugh Morgan, Fay’s grandfather.

Mixed in with the story of Fay’s investigations is the track of the chronometer, beginning in 1841 in Van Diemen’s Land, to which the ships Terror and Erebus are lately returned from Captain Ross’s exploration of the Antarctic. They will be going to the Arctic in Sir John Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage. With him goes Commander Crozier.

This is an absolutely riveting book, following the course of a series of polar explorations up through the years to post-World War II, and finally to the present with Fay’s search. This novel does not so much document their physical hardships but explore the state of mind that leads men to return to these harsh regions again and again. It also follows the mystery of the chronometer. What path brought it back to England after it disappeared into the Arctic? What happened to Commander Crozier, last seen traveling with an old one, a race of men known by the Inuit to have been there longer than they?

O’Loughlin has done a beautiful job of intermingling history and fiction, reality and mysticism to write this novel, an exploration in itself. This novel is wondrous.

Related Posts

The Orenda

River Thieves

Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson

 

Day 1297: The Weight of Ink

Cover for The Weight of InkThe Weight of Ink is a dual time-frame novel set in the current time and the 17th century. At first, I wasn’t as captured by the present-day sections as I was by the past, but eventually the entire novel absorbed me. There is a big revelation at the end that I anticipated, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

In the present day, Helen Watt is an English university professor of Jewish history who is elderly and ill. Requested by a previous student to examine a cache of papers he found in a wall of his 17th century house, Helen does not expect any great finds. What she discovers is a genutza, the hidden papers of a 17th century rabbi, and on one page, a mention of Spinoza. Understanding that this could be a major discovery, she requests help and gets that of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student.

One of their first, startling discoveries is that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes’s scribe, identified only by the Hebrew letter aleph, is a woman. Having reported her initial findings to Jonathan Martin, the head of the History Department, so that he could buy the papers from the owners, Helen is dismayed to find her place on the investigation usurped. She can continue working with the papers, but Martin has also given Brian Wilton access. He arrives with four graduate students to beat Helen and Aaron to any discoveries and immediately publishes an article about one of the topics in the letters.

In 1657, Ester Velasquez is a young Jewish woman who has been allowed an unusual education. In these dangerous days of the Inquisition, her family fled Portugal for Amsterdam, where her parents were killed in a fire. She and her brother Isaac are part of the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, who travels to England to educate the British Jews in their heritage, these people having been hiding there pretending to be Protestants during hundreds of years when Jews were not allowed in England. Rabbi Mendes’s difficult job is made harder when Isaac, his scribe, leaves. But the rabbi lets Ester take his place.

Offered an opportunity of knowledge, Ester comes to know that she does not want to return to a woman’s life. So, she sets about a daring deception.

Aside from covering some key events of its time—the Inquisition, the return of Jews to England, the plague, and the Great Fire—The Weight of Ink offers us an intrepid, determined heroine in Ester as well as an interesting modern story. I was really touched by this novel. It’s terrific—the kind of novel I look for in historical fiction.

Related Posts

The People of the Book

The Bookman’s Tale

The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos

Day 1289: The Clockmaker’s Daughter

Cover for The Clockmaker's DaughterBest Book of Five!
The first character we meet in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is the ghost of the clockmaker’s daughter. Although she used the name Lily Millington, we don’t find out her true name, or why she haunts Birchwood Manor, until the end of the novel.

The novel begins in the present, though, with Elodie, an archivist. She is about to be married, but she is having trouble concentrating on the wedding. That is because, in going through the archive of James W. Stratton, a philanthropist, she has found the belongings of a Victorian artist, Edward Radcliffe, in particular, a sketchbook. This discovery is of interest because inside it is a picture that she realizes is of a house from a children’s story handed down in her own family.

link to NetgalleyWhile Elodie begins exploring this link between Radcliffe and her family, we slowly hear the stories of Lily Millington, of a beloved house, and of a long-lost family heirloom. We also learn the stories of a series of inhabitants of the house.

Although I love a good ghost story, I wasn’t sure whether I would appreciate the ghost being one of the narrators. And this is not a traditional ghost story, for the ghost is not one that frightens. Kate Morton is a masterful storyteller, however, so that I was engrossed as always. Although this is not my favorite book by Morton, which still remains The Forgotten Garden, I really enjoyed it.

Related Posts

The Forgotten Garden

The Secret Keeper

The Lake House