Monthly Archives: January 2007

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George

Margaret George is one of my Goddesses of Historical Fiction (the other being Sharon Kay Penman. Philippa Gregory is vying for entrance to the pantheon, but the jury is still out). I fell in love with George’s first blockbuster historical novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII, and have read every one since. Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene … and now, Helen of Troy.

I have to confess that while I’ve enjoyed every one of these novels, none has had the emotional impact of the Henry VIII one, lines and images from which still linger in my mind (although it may be that that’s the only one I’ve reread. But then: why? Because it’s the best). Seems funny to me that a female author’s most intimate and intense portrayal of a historical character should be the one male character she wrote about, but that’s just the way I read them.

That being said, there’s no such thing as a bad Margaret George novel, in my opinion, and Helen of Troy is certainly a good one. It was also an educational read for me, as my background in all things Greek is woefully lacking. I often tell my students what I myself was told in first-year university: if you want to understand English literature, you need a solid grounding in two things: the Bible, and Greek mythology. Due to the peculiarities of an Adventist education, I am superbly well-versed in the first, and virtually ignorant of the second.

In fact, I have to admit that prior to reading this novel, not only had I not read the Iliad and the Odyssey; most of my knowledge about the Trojan War came from watching the justifiably panned movie Troy, with Brad Pitt pouting through the role of Achilles. (If by chance you have missed this movie, or seen it and want something to laugh at, please skip straight to Troy in 15 Minutes, one of the funniest things ever posted on the internet).

Okay. Deep breath. Back to Margaret George and her not-quite-historical subject, Helen of Troy. Not knowing the story was actually an advantage for me, because I did come to the novel with a certain freshness and openness. And it is a good story, told from Helen’s point of view and very readable and engaging. George’s decision to have her characters act and speak in a rather lofty and mythic style distances them somewhat from the reader, sadly, and for me it prevented me from feeling truly close to the characters or really sharing their sorrows. The passage of time in the novel is odd, too — a problem George admits grappling with in the Afterword, but one which I didn’t feel was handled satisfactorily. I never had the sense of time passing, of the characters growing older, as they must have done.

Despite the feeling that I wanted more from this novel than it gave me, I did thoroughly enjoy reading it, and will be waiting for the next Margaret George historical novel. I wonder who she’s going to tackle next?

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Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee


And now for something completely different — I review a children’s book!

You’d think I’d do this more as we certainly have enough of them in the house and I read enough of them aloud. But rarely am I impressed enough to add a kids’ book to my list of reviews. Clementine is a definite exception!

My parents bought this book for Emma, for Christopher’s birthday (don’t ask) and by the time the kids went to bed that evening, most of the adults in the room had had a look at the book and read a few sentences out loud — it’s just that engaging. This did, however, make me fear that it was going to be one of those kids’ books enjoyed mainly by adults — because you’re laughing at the child character, rather than with her.

Clementine could be that kind of book — the title-character, an overly-imaginative third-grader, could easily be labelled with both ADHD and OCD, and I’m sure her principal would love to get her on an ISSP if she’s not already — but it’s not. The humour is as appealing to kids as to adults, though perhaps for different reasons. Emma and Christopher’s favourite part was when Clementine suggests to her apartment-building-superintendent father that the pigeon-poop problem on the outside of the building can be solved by putting tiny diapers on all the pigeons. My favourite part was when Clementine’s baby brother asks to “Go for a wok?” and Clementine puts him in the wok and spins him around the kitchen floor. Really, there’s something for everyone here.

Emma loved having the book read aloud, and Christopher, while disdainfully insisting that “Clementine’s weird” (presumably because she’s a girl) hesitantly asked if we’d come into his room to read the last couple of chapters. Clementine’s perspective on the world is fresh, funny, and absolutely believable, and her family is adorable.

This is the first I’ve heard of Sara Pennypacker as an author, but illustrator Marla Frazee is already popular in our house, having illustrated The Seven Silly Eaters, which is one of Emma’s favourite books, and On the Morn of Mayfest, which we also enjoyed. I notice that Amazon has a listing for a sequel called The Talented Clementine, scheduled for release in April 2007, and I can definitely see this series holding a permanent spot on our bookshelves.

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The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards

The first new book I read in 2007 — as opposed to re-reads, which I’ve been doing a lot of! — was Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which caught my eye when I picked it up in the bookstore one day. (Then I went and got it from the library; I rarely take chances on buying books I haven’t read unless I’m very familiar with the author).

This novel begins with a fascinating premise, very loosely based on a real-life incident. On a winter night in 1964, a young doctor delivers his own twins. Discovering that one of them has Down Syndrome, he gives her to his nurse to secretly take to an institution — and tells his wife that their baby daughter has died. Instead of carrying out his instructions, the nurse leaves town with the baby girl and raises her as her own daughter in another city.

I don’t know how anyone could not want to read on and find out how this story turns out, particularly when it’s as well-written as this. I raced through this book in twenty-four hours, picking it up whenever I got a spare moment. The story tells about the parallel but separate lives of the two families — Dr. David Henry, his wife Nora, and their son Paul; Caroline Gill and her daughter Phoebe. As David and Nora’s marriage flounders and Nora grieves for the daughter she believes dead, Caroline struggles to give Phoebe a full life in a world that has little understanding of or tolerance for her disability.

The novel covers thirty years in the lives of these characters and never becomes dull or tiresome, though in a couple of places it stretches credibility a little. I found all four of the viewpoint characters (David, Nora, Paul and Caroline) believable and sympathetic; I didn’t always agree with their choices but always understood why they made them.

The writing is good, polished without drawing attention to itself, but there are places where Edwards over-writes and tells us things she has already shown. I got tired of being told, in so many words, that David was keeping a terrible secret that had affected everyone’s lives — we get that, it’s clear from the beginning, we don’t need to be told. Despite this tendency to over-narrate important moments, this is essentially a well-written page-turner that made me care about its characters and dealt sensitively with the Big Issues: grief and loss, Down Syndrome, and the progress of a marriage.

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