When an online book club I sometimes participate in suggested How to Stop Time, my immediate reaction on reading the blurb was, “Well, this is a book tailor-made for me!” It combines historical fiction with fantastic/sci-fi elements, as its main character has a rare condition called anageria. This is the opposite of progeria, the real-life condition where people age more quickly than normal. Tom Hazard, in this novel (one of many names he goes by), ages about fifteen times more slowly than normal people. He is one of a handful of anagerics who have been alive for hundreds of years; as the novel opens in the present day Tom is over 400 years old but looks to be in his mid-thirties. He has had to move around frequently throughout his life, since if he stays in one place longer than a few years people start to notice that he hasn’t aged and they get suspicious. In the olden days, this could mean accusations of witchcraft or other supernatural shenanigans; today it’s more likely to mean pursuit by ruthless scientists who want to study these “albatrosses” to harvest the secret of eternal youth. So Tom lives in the shadows; he has hung out with Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald in his time, and developed an impressive list of skills, but he’s been unable to maintain any long-lasting relationships, because eventually everyone he loves will be left behind.
Four hundred years later, Tom is still pining after his lost love from the early 1600s, Rose, with whom he had a daughter Marion, who is still around somewhere because she too shares Tom’s condition. The novel relates Tom’s life story in flashbacks, alternated with scenes in present-day London where he tries to blend in as a history teacher (good career choice there), continues his centuries-long search for Marion, and considers the possibility of loving again.
A lot of great fiction confronts the question of mortality, of the shortness of human life and how we can live and love knowing it will all be lost. How to Stop Time comes at this question from the opposite direction: what if you knew that your life was virtually endless, but that all those around you were doomed to age and die? Could life, could love, still have meaning under those circumstances?
I thought How to Stop Time was a lovely and very engaging novel that handled those questions in an insightful and thoughtful way. Tom was a likable enough character that it was possible to empathize with him even though his situation is not one that any of us can relate to. Except that time does keep passing, things do keep changing, and we all, sometimes, want to stop it. So maybe we can relate after all.
I decided to pick up this book (and when I say “pick up” I obviously mean “download” because it’s not like this translation of a 1986 French novel was just sitting on a bookshelf at my local chain bookstore) after I read The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu and reflected on how little I know about African history. This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of a real man who is known to history as Leo Africanus, though that is not the name he was born with. Nor was he African by birth: Hassan, as he was called, was born in Granada in the late 1480s or early 1490s, just as the Muslim civilization that flourished there fell to the Christian crusade of Ferdinand and Isabella. Hassan’s family fled, as many Muslims did, to Morocco, and it is the life that unfolded for him there — as a travelling merchant and eventually a diplomat — that led to him writing a book about his travels across North Africa.
As always, a good historical novel is like a glimpse into another world. Through Hassan/Leo’s eyes the reader visits Granada, Fez, Timbuktu, Cairo and Rome in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It was a taste of African history that I would like to get much more of, so any book recommendations are welcome!
This novel came very highly recommended by several people whose reading tastes I trust completely, so I went into it with high expectations. While it is a very good book and I was not disappointed, I do wonder if I might have loved it more if I’d just stumbled across it by chance, rather than it having such a weight of expectation to support.
The Shadow of the Wind, translated from the original Spanish, is exactly the kind of literary mystery tailor-made to draw me in. Daniel Sempere is a young boy in Barcelona in 1945, the only son of a bookseller. He discovers a novel called The Shadow of the Wind and becomes obsessed with it. But when he tries to find out more about the book and its mysterious author, hoping to read more of his work, he discovers a mystery. The author is presumed dead under mysterious circumstances, and nobody seems to know (or be willing to say much about him). His few novels, which never sold well in his lifetime, are increasingly hard to find — largely because it appears that someone has been going around systematically trying to destroy every copy in existence.
This puzzle leads young Daniel on a quest that will consume the next ten years of his life and bring an array of colourful characters into his path. Eventually, the mystery is solved in a satisfying way, though it was a solution I was able to predict from early on, and that may have been part of the reason I wasn’t wholly enthralled by the book. I love it when author can surprise me, and since I’m pretty dim about plots and clues this happens a fair bit. In this case, however, the twist at the end was one I could see coming a long ways off so I missed the pleasure of being surprised. I also thought there was a bit too much reliance on the tropes of undying love, and beautiful women as objects of desire (without being fully developed characters in their own right). However, balanced against all this, the book was beautifully written and a joy to read. The scene-setting is very evocative, and there’s a truly wonderful cast of characters. If you like books about books, this is one you will want to check out.
The last book I read in 2017 was the second volume of Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, in which the young hero, or anti-hero depending what you think of him at this point, Nicholas, travels to the kingdom of Trebizond on a trading mission and, of course, becomes embroiled in intrigue and danger. This is typical Dunnett in that it’s brilliantly researched, dense, not a quick read by any means, and the main character remains as morally ambiguous and difficult to get a hold on as always. Watching Nicholas’s skills as a merchant, a fighter, and master of intrigue grow throughout this novel is a joy — but be prepared for a solid gut-punch of an ending. Six more books to go in this series and I am prepared for a long, twisting, and intriguing ride.
Saints for All Occasions is exactly the kind of sprawling family saga I love to read (and sometimes write). In the late 1950s, two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa, set out for America. Nora is not so much following dreams as following a sense of obligation — to a fiancee she isn’t sure she wants to marry, who has already gone ahead of her to Boston. Theresa, her prettier, smarter, braver younger sister, has great dreams of life in America. Nora has only fears.
But before we even meet Nora and Theresa, we find out that in 2009, Nora’s fifty-year-old son Patrick, the eldest of her four children, dies in a car crash. The threads of story that link Patrick’s troubled life to his mother’s and aunt’s arrival in America half a century ago will make up the plot of the novel, along with a vivid overview of the Boston Irish immigrant experience over the second half of the twentieth century.
There’s everything here you would expect: family secrets, an iron-willed Irish matriarch, a family bound and torn by loyalties and rivalries. There are a few things you wouldn’t expect, like fascinating glimpses into the life of a convent of cloistered nuns in the post-Vatican II era. It’s all carried along with great characterization — not only Nora and Theresa but each of Nora’s four grown children are well-rounded, engaging and fascinating characters. All together it makes for a very competent depiction of family, community, and how the choices you make when you’re young shape the person you end up becoming, sometimes in unexpected ways.
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.