So I’ve plunged into Dorothy Dunnett’s other historical fiction series, after getting completely absorbed in her Lymond Chronicles last year. This series, The House of Niccolo, is set more than a century earlier than Lymond’s Scottish adventures. It begins in mid-fifteenth-century Bruges, where the titular Niccolo (not yet called Niccolo) is an apprentice in a dye-shop. He seems innocent, happy-go-lucky, perhaps a bit simple-minded. But as the scenes unfold, it becomes clear to the reader that there’s a lot more to young Nicholas than meets the eye. Not only is he brilliant, he may also be a schemer — less the hapless victim of events that he appears to be, and more the mastermind behind them.
Exactly what Nicholas is, and what game he’s playing, is not fully revealed even at the end of the novel. In reading this book my expectations were shaped by the Lymond books. In the first of that series, A Game of Kings, the reader is also, initially, deceived about the main character. Lymond appears to be the villain of the piece, and is seen that way by most of the characters: his heroism is only gradually revealed, and not till the end of the novel is it made clear exactly what he’s been doing and what his motivations are, at which point we see a lot of his earlier actions in a different light.
Knowing that Dorothy Dunnett was a writer who packed her scenes densely with detail, gave little away, and expected her readers to be smart and follow closely, I wasn’t as lost and confused with Niccolo Rising as I was with the first Lymond book. I trusted that by the end, all would be revealed and my misunderstandings would be cleared up. But Niccolo Rising is a less self-contained novel than A Game of Kings; Dunnett fans tell me that when she wrote this one she was well aware that she was at the beginning of a long series, and left many secrets to be gradually uncovered in the next seven books.
So if I need to read all eight books to understand what I need to know about Nicholas/Niccolo, so be it. In the company of a writer as skilful as Dunnett, who can make the past come so vividly to life you could swear she was a time-traveller, I plan to settle in and enjoy the ride.
This is a short and lovely book about four young African-American girls growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Woodson is best known for a verse memoir (Brown Girl Dreaming) because, although Another Brooklyn is written in prose, it’s very poetic prose. The writing has not only the beautiful and thoughtful word choices, but also the terse and spare structure of poetry. There’s a lot less exposition here than in a traditional novel: it’s almost as if we are being given glimpses or vignettes into the life of main character August, her three closest girlfriends, and her family, but it’s up to the reader to imagine the connective tissue that links those scenes together.
August’s father brings her and her brother to Brooklyn from Tennessee as children, in the wake of a family tragedy that leaves them motherless. The story is bracketed by loss: as the novel opens, present-day August meets with her remaining family after her father’s death, and memory takes her back to the childhood loss of her mother. Along the way, there are other losses. The loss of innocence as children turn into teenagers and young girls become aware of predatory men all around them. The loss of hope in neighbourhoods left blasted by “white flight” and blighted by drugs and poverty. The loss of friendships that were supposed to be lifelong. All this loss makes Another Brooklyn at times a difficult book to read, but it’s a beautifully written and haunting one.
Saroo Brierly’s story recently came out as a movie called Lion, which I haven’t seen, but on hearing about it I wanted to read the book. It’s a simple and yet amazing story of a poor boy from India who got separated from his home and family at age five by the simple act of getting on the wrong train. Finding himself in a big city with no idea how to find his way home, Saroo ended up first in an orphanage, then in Australia, adopted by a couple there.
Though he adapted well to his new home and new life, Saroo never ceased to be curious about home. But not even knowing for sure the name of the town he came from, his family name, or many other details, he had no idea how to begin looking. Until, when he was a young man, the internet came along.
The story of how Saroo used Google Earth to match pictures of places with his memories from more than twenty years earlier is incredible and heartwarming. This really is one of those stories of survival that’s so unbelievable, it has to be true, because you couldn’t make it up.
A new John Green book is always going to be a treat for me, as well as for the teenaged reader in my house, because we’re big John Green fans. Turtles All the Way Down, coming five years after his blockbuster hit The Fault in Our Stars and carrying all the weight of expectations that accompanies the next release after a huge bestseller. It does not disappoint.
Turtles is told from the point of view of Asa Holmes, a 16-year-old girl who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (as does the author himself). It’s rare to see a depiction of mental illness, especially an anxiety disorder, as raw, unsparing, and honest-feeling as this one. Asa feels like a prisoner of her own thoughts, unable to escape them and wondering who she even is if her mind is invaded by thoughts she doesn’t want and can’t control. Everything else in her life — her relationship with her loving but worried mom, her friendship with best friend Daisy, and her attempts to solve a mystery surrounded a cute guy who might be a possible boyfriend — is pushed to the side and subverted by anxious thoughts that Asa can’t escape.
This novel is hard to read at times, just like it’s hard to live inside a brain that seems determined to sabotage itself. But the novel is also often funny, always insightful, and ultimately hopeful and life-affirming — though it’s not a hope cheaply bought. Both John Green and Asa Holmes are realistic about the fact that narratives of mental illness are not simple “I was sick and then I got better” stories. Reality is harder and sometimes uglier — but it’s beautiful, too. And so is this book.
(Btw, for those who like podcasts, you can hear a great discussion between me and my daughter Emma, who is an insightful and incisive 17-year-old reader, on this episode of my Shelf Esteem book podcast where we discuss this and other YA novels we’ve read lately).