If I Gave the Award

Cover for An Officer and a SpyI’m continuing my tradition of commenting on the award projects I have taken on by giving my opinion about whether the judges got it right. Yesterday, with An Officer and a SpyI finished reviewing the short listed books for the 2014 Walter Scott Prize for Historical FictionAn Officer and a Spy was the winner for that year.

I have to say that there were some excellent historical novels on the list for that year. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was my best book for one year, and since I read it during a different year, The Luminaries was my best book for another year. I also loved Fair HelenIn fact, I enjoyed all of the nominees for 2014. Of the three named above, Life After Life and The Luminaries are most inventive in structure.

Cover for Life After LifeSo, for this article, I was forced to consider the idea of giving a historical fiction prize. I think that the prize must partly depend upon how successfully the novel depicts the feel of the period or the historical events being described. Here, The Luminaries is not as strong as some of the others in its sense of time and place. An Officer and a Spy may not be as inventive in structure, but it tells a strong historical story. So, too, though, does Life After Life. So, because it combines an inventive structure with a strong historical background, I pick Life After Life, with the caveat that all of the nominees for this year were good ones.

Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 995: The Promise

Cover for The PromiseSeveral years ago, I read Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, a nonfiction account of the terrible Galveston hurricane and flood of 1900. So, when one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list turned out to be set in that time and place, I really wanted to read it. It did not disappoint.

Catherine Wainwright has behaved badly, and the result is a scandal that has resulted in her ostracism from her home town of Dayton, Ohio, and cost her livelihood as a performing pianist. In desperation, she writes to an old friend, Oscar Williams, who is a dairy farmer on Galveston Island. Although she has always considered herself his social superior, years ago he proposed to her. She did not accept him, but he is now a widower with a young son. He proposes again and she accepts. She has barely enough money to get to Galveston.

Nan Ogden is a much less sophisticated woman. She was the best friend of Bernadette, Oscar’s wife, and promised her she would take care of Andre, Oscar and Bernadette’s son. Truth be told, she has her own feelings for Oscar. Until Catherine appears, she has hopes that some day she might be Oscar’s wife. Instead, she finds herself a housekeeper for a woman who can barely boil an egg.

We don’t like Catherine at first, but she quickly grows on us as she develops more empathy for other people. As Catherine, Oscar, Andre, and Nan try to sort out their various feelings and relationships, the tension in the novel builds toward the storm. Then the novel becomes truly riveting.

The Promise is especially strong in its sense of place. I’ve been to Galveston when it was so hot I wondered how anyone could live there before air conditioning, let alone wearing corsets and tight clothes. Weisgarber really makes you feel the heat and stickiness.

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Day 958: Merivel: A Man of His Time

Cover for MerivelIt wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.

Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.

On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.

It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.

Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.

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Day 953: The Glass Room

Cover for The Glass RoomThe Glass Room is one of the books I’m reading for my Walter Scott Prize project. The novel is inspired by a real house in the Czech Republic designed by Mies van der Rohe. Most of the reviews of the novel, as well as the novel itself, have spent some time describing this house, and although architectural elevations appear before each section of the book, it helps to look at the pictures online when you’re trying to visualize the house.

Liesel and Viktor Landauer are recently married and have decided to build a modern home on a piece of property given to them by Liesel’s parents in the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. Viktor wants a house that is open and will have no secrets, one of the ironies of a plot with many that I started to think of as mirrors. Viktor is excited at the beginning of what he sees as modern, changing times in the formation of the new country. But of course Czechoslovakia will not be in charge of itself for long, and in fact now no longer exists. Then we have the irony of the house itself, built for no secrets, that harbors many.

Viktor and Liesel’s marriage and day-to-day life are hardly at all the focus of this novel. We see Viktor getting a little annoyed at the depth of Liesel’s involvement with building and decorating the house, but otherwise Mawer actually spends very little time on them together. Instead, he focuses on their relationships with other people, Viktor’s with his mistress Kata and Liesel with her friend Hana. But World War II looms ever closer and eventually the family must leave the country, as Viktor is Jewish.

The book is divided almost exactly in half, the first half devoted to the building of the house and its existence as a family home. The second half explores its use by the different political entities that take it over, when it is never a family home, another mirror. First, it is a Nazi laboratory for attempting to identify physical characteristics of Jews and Slavs. During this time, Hana gets involved in a dangerous affair with one of the scientists. Next, it is a horse stable for Russian cavalry, then a physiotherapy lab for polio victims, and finally a museum.

The huge windowed glass room that makes up the living room, dining area, sitting area, and music room has at its heart a stone wall made of onyx. In the evening sunshine this wall glows and colors the room bright red. I think this is a metaphor—the clean, modern, uncluttered structure, one that may seem cold, is taken over by the unanticipated heart of the house, this red, for passion. I’m saying this clumsily, but one of Mawer’s focuses is the eroticism that is repeatedly evoked in these surroundings, not between Viktor and Liesel, but between other couples. At first, I was confused by why we know almost nothing about Viktor and Liesel together but dwell repeatedly on Viktor’s sexual relationship with Kata. But sex is one of the focuses of this novel, one of its mirrors. For example, in the icy surroundings of the lab designed for the most evil of purposes, Hana makes passionate love with Stahl, who later coldly discards her and even betrays her. Also, there is a tension between the openness of the house and a sense of voyeurism.

This novel was definitely not my favorite of the books I’ve read so far for this project. It is called a novel of ideas, but really it is so detached as to be almost cerebral. Yet, we are repeatedly entertained by descriptions of pubic hair or of how Hana’s labia just show beneath it. I found it unsettling and could understand a bit why the original owners of the house refer to the book as “probably pornography.” It is not pornography, of course, but the family is not buying Mawer’s stance that it’s a fictional story about a real house. They think it’s about them. Or perhaps they are afraid people will think it’s about them.

Despite this detachment from the characters, I still found some scenes toward the end of the novel touching. As for the rest, perhaps Mawer wanted to make readers feel like they were voyeurs. (See? Another mirror—the openness of the house versus voyeurism.) I am not sure, but I could have forgone some of the intense sexuality of this novel. There is another book by Mawer on my list, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. (Oh, dear, it just won the Man Booker prize.)

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Day 948: Sacred Hearts

Cover for Sacred HeartsBest Book of the Week!
Sacred Hearts is another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. Although Sarah Dunant is an author I’ve read in the past with moderate enjoyment, I very much enjoyed her novel about the Borgias, Blood & Beauty.

This novel is also set in Renaissance Italy, in 1570 Ferrara. Dunant begins the book by telling us that in the second half of the 16th century, dowries had become so expensive that roughly half the daughters of noble families were consigned to convents, whether willingly or unwillingly.

Suora Zuana is one of that number. When her professor father died years before, she had nowhere to go and her dowry was small. Yes, dowries had to be paid to convents as well, but they were much smaller than those paid with brides.

Her small dowry has not earned Zuana very many comforts in the convent of Santa Caterina, but she has created a valuable role for herself as a healer and dispenser of remedies. She has managed to bring along many of her father’s books, although some of the most valuable were stolen at his death by his students and peers, and she has greatly expanded the convent’s herb garden. Aside from caring for the convent’s ill, she makes medicines for the bishop and others.

At the opening of the novel, she is on her way to drug Serafina, a novice who has been screaming for days, ever since she was forcibly ensconced in the convent by her family. She is a girl from Milan, so no one in the convent is familiar with her family. Suora Zuana is able to calm her, and later they find she has an angelic voice, which delights the convent choir director.

For the sake of everyone’s peace, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, asks Suora Zuana to take Serafina under her wing rather than handing her over to the novice mistress, Suora Umiliana. So, Zuana begins teach Serafina how to prepare medications. None of the sisters know that Serafina has hatched a plot to escape from the convent with her lover, the musician Jacopo.

What Serafina doesn’t understand, although she probably wouldn’t care, is that this is a politically delicate time for Santa Caterina and for all convents in general. Reforms on the heels of the Counter-Reformation have resulted in a cracking down on convents in some cities. Madonna Chiara fears that the convent’s few liberties will be lost, especially if they have a scandal. Their means of making a living will be removed, their orchestras disbanded and performances disallowed, their books will be confiscated, and they will no longer be allowed outside in the garden. Visitors will only be able to see them behind a grating. This is what has been happening throughout Italy.

On the local front, some of the sisters, led by Suora Umiliana, would like the convent to become stricter in its observances, even though it is already strict. Suora Umiliana is a religious zealot who is fascinated by Suora Magdalena, the convent’s “living saint.” Although Suora Magdalena has long been close to death, when she was younger she had fits of ecstasy and suffered from stigmata. Shortly after Serafina arrives at the convent, Magdalena has the first of her fits in years and speaks to Serafina. Later, when Serafina becomes ill, Umiliana thinks she can use her condition to take over control of the convent from Chiara.

Although I was interested in this novel, it took me some time to become really involved in it. I am revealing more about the plot than I usually would, because the description of the book from the blurb about how Suora Zuana comes to care for Serafina does little to convey the depths and power of this novel. For quite a while I had no idea where it was going and wondered how interested I was, but the novel turned out to be very much worth reading. This is one that really sneaks up on you.

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