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.

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Review 1425: High Wages

Jane Carter is a young girl hoping to get a job in Tidsley so she can move out of her stepmother’s house. While her father was alive, she was educated and cherished, but since the age of 15, she’s only been tolerated in her home. In front of Chadwick’s shop, she sees a sign posted for a shop girl. This would be a good opportunity for her, because Chadwick’s is the best draper in Tidsley. And, as she is of genteel appearance, she is hired.

She is excited to get the job, although she slowly realizes its problems. The room above the shop where she must live is not very nice, but it seems fine to her, and her roommate, Maggie, is friendly. However, Mrs. Chadwick skimps on the girls’ food, and Mr. Chadwick sometimes cheats her out of her commission, taking it for himself. Worse, though, is his caution at change in the shop. Jane finds she is good at her job and has ideas that will make money, but Chadwick often won’t let her try them.

A difficulty she isn’t aware of, as Maggie and her young man, Wilfred, invite her out with them every Sunday, is that Wilfred is falling in love with her. She, herself, is attracted by a young man named Noel Yarde, but he is above her in class. Then, lives change as World War I begins.

This novel has an appealing heroine, naïve yet practical, and not to be beaten down. Its realistic portrait of the times, particularly as they change over a period of about eight years, is interesting. The flavor of the northern town, with its grimness and social barriers, is interesting, too. As usual with Whipple,, I enjoyed this novel very much.

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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Day 1278: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Cover for The Forty Days of Musa DaghBest Book of Five!
In 1915, the Ottoman Empire decided to make a scapegoat of its Armenian subjects. It declared all Armenians to be subversive and began “relocating” them to the deserts of Syria. Those who did not die on the way from starvation or mistreatment starved to death upon arrival. In this way, the Turks rid themselves of 1.5 million Armenians, a fact the Turkish government still denies.

In the shadow of the mountain named Musa Dagh, the inhabitants of seven villages decided not to go. After the villages received the news that they would soon be relocated, they sneaked supplies and livestock up into the mountain. Then, the day before the evacuation, they walked up onto Musa Dagh. There, for forty days, they managed to defeat the Turkish army’s attacks until they were rescued by the French navy. Although there were casualties, more than five thousand people were rescued.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is considered Franz Werfel’s masterpiece—his fictional account of the event. The main character is Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy man raised in Europe who has recently returned to this family home after the death of his older brother. He is a reserve army officer, and when he reports to the regional capital to find out why he hasn’t been called up, he hears disquieting rumors.

Back home, he consults with village leaders until the arrival of Aram Tomasian, a Protestant pastor who was relocated with his family from another village. He and his family have been allowed to travel to his father’s village, the authorities thinking it will not affect his fate. But he is able to tell the villagers what is happening during the relocations.

Gabriel has been trying to save his French wife, Juliette, and his son, Stephan. But now he proposes that the villagers ascend Musa Dagh and defend themselves. Only the followers of one church decide to cooperate with the Turks.

At 800+ pages, this novel is very long, but completely absorbing. Werfel’s characters are not heroes but complex people. The novel is suspenseful because even though we know the result for the village as a whole, we don’t know what will happen to the individual characters. The villagers have deserters, loss of their livestock, a fire in their grainery, and other hazards to navigate. I don’t know any other way to explain it but to say this. This novel is fantastic. It is absolutely what I look for in a good novel, where I can immerse myself in another world for a short while.

P. S. If you are interested in reading more about the Armenian genocide, another touching novel is Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières.

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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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C

Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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Day 1100: The Stranger’s Child

Cover for The Stranger's ChildI had the oddest experience with The Stranger’s Child. Although it was well written and sounded like something I would be interested in, for a while every time I started to read it, I fell asleep. There is very little movement to this novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the end of it had me wondering what the point of it was.

The novel is multigenerational, beginning in 1913 and ending in 2008. In 1913, Daphne Sawle, who is 16, is attracted to her brother George’s friend, Cecil Valance, down for a visit from Cambridge. Cecil is an aristocrat and a poet. Unbeknownst to naive Daphne, he and George are having a wild affair.

The next section of the book takes place ten years after World War I. Cecil died in the war, and the family is dedicating a memorial to him. The family includes Daphne, as she has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and they have two children. However, she is in love with Revel Ralph, a set designer for the theater.

By far the bulk of the novel is set in the 1960’s and 70’s and is from the point of view of Paul Bryant. In the 1960’s, he is a shy bank clerk. He has become involved with the family through his boss, who has married into it, and through his affair with Peter Rowe, a schoolteacher at Corley House, which used to be the Valance home. Cecil is now regarded as one of England’s minor poets.

Ten years later, Paul is a biographer, determined to out Cecil as a gay man despite the claims of Daphne to have been his fianceé. It is unfortunate that I found this main character of the longest section to be so unappealing and completely focused on who was or was not gay, although I realize that the 1970’s was the time for that kind of revelation.

Part of my problem with the novel may have been the blurb, which really oversells aspects of the plot. For example, it says, “Over time, a tragic love story is spun . . . .” Well, there are several love stories that come out, but I wouldn’t call any of them tragic, and it’s actually difficult to tell which of them this comment refers to. One of the secrets is so understated during the novel that even though it is the last revelation, it seems anticlimactic. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic that Paul is so focused on the possibility of one affair that he completely misses another.

Finally, this is a novel so focused on the sexuality of its characters that it gives the impression that the entire upper class male population of England is gay. We see a little into Daphne’s infatuations, but otherwise, only from the point of view of various gay men trolling for sex or obsessing about it. Those of you who know me will realize that I would have the same complaint if the sole focus was on heterosexual sex. So, not one of my favorites for my Walter Scott prize project.

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