Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Day 1300: Munich

Cover for MunichRobert Harris’s newest book, Munich, takes place during four days in September 1938, during which England’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler, Mussolini, and the President of France to try to avoid war over Czechoslavakia. Or at least Chamberlain was trying to prevent war. As he has done before, Harris manages to create suspense around an event the outcome of which we already know.

He does this by introducing two characters, friends from Oxford who are now diplomats. Hugh Legat is a junior secretary for the Prime Minister. Paul von Hartmann is in the German foreign ministry, but he is also a member of a group who would like to bring down Hitler. The group asks him to attempt to encourage a strong response from England on the Sudetenland issue by leaking secret German aspirations in Europe to England through his friendship with Hugh. The group believes that if war is declared, the German army will stop Hitler.

This mission is a dangerous one for Hartmann, who already has one SS officer on his tail. Meanwhile, Hugh in trying to be a liaison is continually stymied by orders from his jealous boss.

I felt a little more detached from this one than I usually do for Harris’s work. It depicts Chamberlain, though, as a much more determined and politically savvy man than he is believed to be now. I get the feeling that Harris, who states in the afterword that he has been fascinated by this meeting for years, wants to show Chamberlain in a more positive light than history generally affords him.

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Day 1218: The Singapore Grip

Cover for The Singapore GripThe Singapore Grip is the third of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which takes a sardonic look at various parts of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur is set in the nineteenth century during the Sepoy rebellion. Troubles takes place in Ireland during the Troubles in the early 20th century. The Singapore Grip is set during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II.

The novel begins in 1939. Walter Blackett is a powerful Singapore businessman whose sole concern is the profits of his company, Blackett and Webb. Despite the Allies’ need for rubber, Blackett is concerned with keeping the price up and spends his time fixing prices and manipulating the market.

His senior partner dies, and Walter awaits the arrival of Matthew Webb, his partner’s heir. Although Walter’s beautiful daughter, Joan, spends her time tormenting various young men, she readily agrees to help her father’s ambitions by marrying Matthew.

Matthew is a naive and feckless young man, whose ideals have been somewhat battered during his work for the League of Nations. Although he is chubby and unprepossessing, Joan makes a dead set for him, dismaying Ehrendorf, the previous favorite. But Matthew is more interested in Vera Chiang, a Eurasian girl who may be a prostitute or possibly a Communist or maybe neither.

This novel is peopled with Farrell’s usual peculiar characters, including a figure from Troubles, Major Brendan Archer. As Singapore begins descending into chaos, the Major attempts to organize a volunteer fire department. But his efforts are hampered by a lack of interest, as the Singaporians concentrate on selling things and the Blacketts focus all their activities on a Jubilee celebration of the company.

Farrell’s cynical look at the last years of the British in Singapore is occasionally hilarious, with a dark and deadpan humor. It also contains much to consider, as various characters discuss the benefits of colonization (whether there are any), theories of commerce, and other ideas that obsess them.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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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 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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