Day 1181: The Zone of Interest

Cover for The Zone of InterestIn Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, the Zone is a Nazi factory and concentration camp in Poland. Interestingly, Amis makes this setting a source of some very black humor.

The novel is written from the points of view of several characters, mostly Nazis, but it is mainly from that of Thomsen, an officer in charge of production at the rubber factory. He is a womanizer, but he begins to have feelings for Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife.

Doll himself is a vile human being. He has his rival for Hannah imprisoned and uses threats against inmates’ relatives to force them to do things.

In fact, most of the characters are vile. And that’s the difficulty with this novel. First, is the Holocaust fodder for humor? I’m not sure it is in general, but it isn’t for me. Also, even though Thomsen is the least criminal of the characters because he’s working subtly against the war effort, these are people busily explaining away their own terrible actions.

Amis’s goal, I think, is to give some insight into the behavior of these people. Whether you want to read a novel on this subject probably depends on whether you’re interested in that insight. It made me a little queasy. This is one of the books I read for my Walter Scott Prize project that I didn’t really enjoy.

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Day 1179: In the Wolf’s Mouth

Cover for In the Wolf's MouthAnother book for my Walter Scott Prize project, In the Wolf’s Mouth is very different from the last novel I read by Adam Foulds. It is about the incompetent “liberation” of Sicily by the Allies during World War II, from the point of view of two characters. Will is a British field security officer who is ambitious to accomplish something. Ray is an Italian-American soldier who gets accidentally detached from his unit.

Although the plot of this novel is disjointed, it hinges upon the use by the American army of Sicilian exiles in its capture of Sicily. Unfortunately, some of these exiles are mafioso who fled the island 20 years before under threat from the Fascists. Ciró Albanese is one of these men, and under the auspices of the American army, he begins taking charge of his old activities. He considers Angilú one of his enemies, as the ex-shepherd took over his job and his house after he was kicked out. He also wants his wife back, even though she has remarried after thinking him dead. Eventually, Will gets wind of his activities.

Although this story is coherent enough, Ray’s story has very little to do with it. His is one of a soldier suffering from too much exposure to violence. His story is loosely connected by place and a link to the Princess, daughter of Angilú’s employer. This looseness gives the novel a disjointed feeling. After enduring a certain amount of tension through the problems of Angilú, we end with a fizzle, with Ray.

Finally, none of the characters are very knowable. We only really see one or two facets of their personalities. The sense of place depends on a few descriptions and a general aura of confusion. Although the novel kept my interest, I felt frustrated by it.

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If I Gave the Award

I recently posted my last review of the books on the shortlist for the 2010 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. So, as usual, it’s time for my feature, If I Gave the Award, when I tell you if I think the jury got it right.

Cover for Conspirata2010 was a strong year for historical fiction, and the shortlist reflects that. Of the seven books on that year’s list, I really enjoyed four of them, liked one other, and didn’t enjoy two others as much. Of the weakest entries, I felt that The Glass Room by Simon Mawer was cold and withdrawn, and I did not enjoy the subject matter of Hodd by Adam Thorpe, although it was effective at evoking the historical period. The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds was interesting, but I still felt removed from the subject.

Cover for Wolf HallThe strongest entries, in my opinion, were Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, Lustrum by Robert Harris (published as Conspirata in the U.S.), Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears, and the winner, Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel. Sacred Hearts, Lustrum, and Wolf Hall were best at evoking a sense of period and place, while Stone’s Fall had a great mystery.

If you follow my blog closely, however, you can probably guess which one I will pick. Wolf Hall was on my Best Books list for the year 2012. It is, in fact, one of my favorite books ever. So, I agree with the jury this time.

Day 1168: Hodd

Cover for HoddI was never one for the romantic legends of Robin Hood. I always thought that, if he did exist, he was probably just the leader of a gang of thugs. And such, apparently, is indicated by the older ballads about him. In Hodd, Adam Thorpe weaves a story of the man that is closer to that told by the older ballads.

This novel is all about the manuscript, as the text of Hodd is supposedly the find of a medieval manuscript, written by a 13th century monk. The narrator, who remains unnamed, is writing the story of his youth. The novel includes scholarly notes from its translator and comments by its discoverer, a soldier in World War I. Some of these notes are funny, and some, I think, are meant to be parodic.

The narrator is about 14 when he is traveling with his master, a monk named Thomas, to Nottingham. They are held up by Hodd’s men and the narrator’s harp is stolen. He decides to go back and get it and is captured by Robert Hodd and his men.

Hodd is actually a sort of lunatic cult leader, who believes that there is no sin and that he is better than God. His followers believe him. He keeps himself intoxicated and has constant visions. He and his men are utterly ruthless and cruel. But rather than killing the narrator, Hodd decides to keep him as one of his men. He is a musician, and he can write songs about Hodd.

The narrator tells a parallel story of his education and upbringing by a holy hermit. This story continues throughout the book and comes in strongly at the end.

I think Thorpe realistically imagines the workings of the medieval mind, showing us strange beliefs. As such, this is a very unusual novel. I could have done without some of the religious moralizing, which filled the novel, as it would a medieval manuscript.

If you are a reader who needs a character to like, this is probably not the book for you, for even the relatively innocent narrator is perfidious. He so much wants to be loved that his jealousy turns him against people.

This is another interesting book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1158: Mrs. Engels

Cover for Mrs. EngelsBest of Five!
Lately, I’ve realized that the novels I enjoy most have a strong narrative voice or sense of character. Mrs. Engels, the debut novel of Irish writer Gavin McCrea, is one of these. I had the fortune to read it as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project.

Lizzie Burns is the Irish mistress of Frederick Engels, long accepted as Mrs. Engels. She has a lot to put up with. Although Engels supports Karl Marx’s entire household, liberally, so that Marx can work on his book, he is very careful about what is spent on his own household. Further, Lizzy suspects him of yearning for her sister, Mary, who was his mistress before she died. And Lizzy is aware that Frederick is not faithful. Finally, he is completely devoted to a Communist revolution, so he often opens the house to his comrades or sends Lizzy on errands for the cause.

Mrs. Engels is a vivid imagining of Lizzy’s life, beginning in 1870 and looking backward to the past. A poor worker in Engels’s cloth mill, she leads a penurious life until Mary takes up with Frederick Engels. She becomes involved with the Fenian movement through her lover, Moss Óg. All in all, she’s a strong presence, funny and putting up with no nonsense. As she becomes more involved with the Marx family after she and Engels move to London, she begins to learn more about Frederick and what he will do for the cause, which to him means Marx.

This novel is beguiling, drawing me, at least, into a topic that I wasn’t much interested in. It tells Lizzy’s story with wit and creates a wonderfully realized setting and character.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for On Canaan's SideHaving reviewed the last book on the Walter Scott Prize shortlist for 2012, it is time for me to give my opinion on whether the judges got it right. Of all the books in the shortlist, would I have picked On Canaan’s Side to be the winner?

For me, this is a much more clear-cut decision than for my last feature, where I compared the books on the shortlist for 2014. For that list, I felt that all the books were excellent, but I chose Life After Life for its combination of inventiveness and sense of history, acknowledging that the winner, An Officer and a Spy, was an excellent historical novel.

Cover for PureFor 2012, however, I can honestly say that I didn’t enjoy most of the books on the shortlist, or I enjoyed them only mildly. The one book that I enjoyed wholeheartedly was that year’s winner, On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, about an Irish woman emigrating to the United States during the Troubles. I also thought that Pure was very interesting and showed a strong sense of the period. The books I enjoyed least were The Stranger’s Child and The Sisters Brothers.

So, for 2012, I agree with the judges. If I had picked the winner from this group, it would be On Canaan’s Side.

Day 1132: The Quality of Mercy

Cover for The Quality of MercyThe Quality of Mercy was another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. It concerns issues of slavery that were coming to the fore in 18th century England.

I did not become that involved with this novel, but that was not necessarily because of the novel itself. I didn’t realize until I started reading it that this novel was a sequel to Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which I had not read. After reading four C. J. Sansom mysteries just so that I could read Heartstone in context, I decided not to go back and read Sacred Hunger first, reasoning that a book should be able to stand on its own. It was fairly easy to figure out what had happened in that novel, but perhaps I missed some background for the characters that would have added to the enjoyment of this one.

Much of The Quality of Mercy has to do with action that took place in Sacred Hunger, and to write this review, I am forced into spoilers for the previous novel. A ship filled with slaves was on its way to the Caribbean when the captain decided to throw some sick slaves overboard. A lawsuit in the current novel contends that the aim was to be able to claim insurance on the slaves that would not apply if they died onboard. The reason given for “jettisoning the cargo” was that the ship was running out of water, but the insurance company’s lawyers have witnesses who say that wasn’t true. In any case, the slaves rose up, assisted by some of the sailors, and took over the ship. The slaves and sailors landed in Florida, where they lived together for 12 years.

But Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, made a vow to find these men after his father committed suicide because the incident ruined him. In Sacred Hunger he was successful in finding the men, and now the sailors involved are on trial for mutiny.

Frederick Ashton is a dedicated abolitionist who is attempting to defend the sailors in order to further the abolitionist cause. Both he and Kemp are zealots in their own ways. Ashton believes that nothing is more important that his cause and makes a request of his sister, Jane, that she considers unworthy of him when he realizes Kemp is attracted to her. Kemp is the type of person who always believes that what he wants is right. He was unstoppable in hunting down the sailors, who included his own cousin.

In the meantime, Sullivan, one of the sailors and an Irish fiddler, was able to walk out of jail when he substituted for a hired fiddler at a party in the jail. Trusting and feckless, he has vowed to go to Durham to see the family of one of his shipmates, who died in Florida. He does not know that Kemp is also on his way to Durham to examine the mine where his shipmate’s family is employed.

Although the novel is certainly well written and interesting, something held me back from being totally involved in the story. Maybe I would have been more interested if I had read the first book, but I’m not sure. I did not like either Kemp or Ashton, although Kemp undergoes some softening during this novel.

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