Category Archives: Fiction — historical

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

Like Setterfield’s previous novels The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black, Once Upon a River presents a tale that is a blend of history, mystery, and magic realism (or perhaps mythology or folklore). The River Thames, winding through English countryside and past an inn called the Swan, is at the centre of this novel, as much a character as the vividly realized cast of human beings who are all touched by the river in some way.

One night at the Swan, a mysterious, badly injured stranger enters the inn, carrying what everyone takes to be a life-sized doll or figure of some kind. In fact, it is a dead, but strangely unreal, little girl — who then comes back to life, just as mysteriously as she has shown up dead. Both she and the man who carried her into the inn have come out of the river, but nobody knows for sure how they got there. And it turns out that two families in the area — two fascinating, utterly believable families — are missing little girls of about this age. For complex plot reasons I won’t get into (read the book!) nobody from either family is able to immediately identify the little girl, so both families believe she could plausibly be their missing child.

Who is the little girl? Where did she come from? To which family does she belong? All these questions are explored as the girl’s fate winds, like the river, through the loosely connected lives of a large group of characters who live along its shores. The eventual conclusion of the story is absolutely rational and believable — while, at the same time, having more than a hint of mystery, myth and magic. Though we are living in the Victorian era where a village nurse carries out scientific experiments to try to understand why a child who was submerged in cold water might appear dead, we are reminded that there are some things reason can never fully account for.

This is a lovely, haunting, thoroughly enjoyable fairy tale.

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The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is a beautiful and lyrical novel about enslaved people in the southern US escaping from slavery. It reminded me of both Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, and, in a different way, of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.

Like The Underground Railroad and, even moreso, Washington Black, it depicts a searing and utterly believable picture of the lives of enslaved and free black people in that place and time. The main character, Hiram, lives uneasily in two worlds: he is a slave, but he is also the son of the plantation owner — the product, like so many enslaved people, of master-slave rape. His father gives him a privileged position in the main house and many privileges, but never considers giving him freedom or acknowledging him as a son: such things would be unimaginable in white Virginia society of that period. Only when he falls in among a group of people — both black and white — committed to freeing slaves, does Hiram glimpse the possibility of a different life.

The comparison to The Underground Railroad — and to Exit West, which of course is about modern immigration rather than about slavery — comes with the fact that there is a layer of magic realism threaded through this vividly realized historical fiction. Hiram has a supernatural power, connected to immersion in water: it saves him when he almost drowns, and, as he gradually discovers, gives him the ability to essentially teleport himself and others across great distances. It’s obvious how useful this skill would be to someone involved in helping enslaved people escape, but for Hiram his power does not come easily nor does he fully understand how to control it.

The one weakness of The Water Dancer comes, I think (for me, not necessarily for all readers) with that comparison: in both The Underground Railroad and Exit West I understood exactly why the magic realism element was in the story, what it contributed to the reader’s understanding of the otherwise realistic story. With this book, I wasn’t sure why the element of Hiram’s power was introduced to the story. It was never as fully developed or as important a part of the novel as early hints seemed to suggest it would be, and I felt like the story would be just as strong and impactful if Hiram had no superpowers but was only an ordinary man wanting to escape from slavery and eventually to help others do so.

This didn’t in any way decrease my enjoyment of the story: it just made me think about why Coates (who is a brilliant writer) made the choices he did, and whether he achieved what he intended to. For me, I don’t think the magic realism quite worked, but the historical story was a powerful and fascinating read.

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The Innocents, by Michael Crummey

This book, nominated for the Giller Prize, features the brilliant clarity of language, deft characterization and description you’d expect from a Michael Crummey novel. The subject matter is as harsh and bleak as the landscape where it’s set, and how you feel about that subject matter may determine how much you enjoy reading this book.

Sometime early in the 19th century (this is not specified, but you can work out the general time period from context clues), a pre-teen brother and sister are left orphaned in a Newfoundland cove so isolated that they are the only family there. Their parents and a baby sister have died, and at first their only choice seems to be to get aboard the next ship that puts into their cove and go to the nearest community to throw themselves on the mercy of whoever might take them in. But having inherited the fierce and stubborn independence of their parents, the siblings decide not to leave their parents’ land, choosing instead to try to survive alone. Through the cycle of the year they fish, make fish, keep house, cut wood, feed themselves and generally try to survive — assisted on occasion by a few visitors from the outside world, but for the most part relying only on themselves and each other.

Crummey does a wonderful job of capturing the innocence of these innocents — all the things they experience without having words or context for them. The language is beautiful here, as you would expect, the rhythms of speech perfectly captured.

If you’re thinking that this is the story of a brother and sister who age from about 12 to 15 during the time of this story with no other people around most of the time, and you’re wondering whether sex is one of those things they don’t have words or context for and whether the story is going to go in an incest-y direction … well, you’ll have to read it and see, but remember I told you it’s bleak, and there’ll definitely be some disturbing passages. This is probably not going to sit alongside Galore and Sweetland as one of my favourite Michael Crummey books, but I have to stand in awe of the brilliance of his writing.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author

The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

This is a book with an intriguing concept that I enjoyed reading, but didn’t grab me quite as much as I’d hoped it would. The main character is Simon, a young man living alone in a crumbling seaside house, about to lose his job in a struggling local library, mourning the loss of his parents and trying to keep in touch with his troubled sister. When he receives a mysterious book in the mail, he begins to plunge into his family’s history, uncovering a tale of circus performers and women with a strange tie to the sea.

Simon himself has inherited his mother’s uncanny ability to stay underwater far longer than a normal person should be able to: along with this, however, comes a family history of untimely deaths by drowning, and he begins to fear that his sister might also be marked by this family curse. The story that unfolds in the present day alternates with a past story of Simon’s circus-performer ancestors, and both were interesting, but I didn’t get quite as immersed in the characters as I had hoped to, given how many ingredients of a great story were present.

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Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, by Janet Fitch

This sequel to The Revolution of Marina M. follows our heroine Marina, who was a middle-class teenager during the Russian revolution, through the years of the Russian civil war. The first book left Marina separated from the man she loved passionately who cheated on her, pregnant with his child, alone and friendless in a country that has in a few short years turned itself inside-out and upside-down. Marina has been a good Communist in her time, but the lines of allegiance are shifting so quickly that she’s no longer sure who can be trusted in this new landscape.

There’s plenty of landscape in this book, as Marina ends up travelling across Russia with her ex-husband (not the father of her child, although he’s going to make an appearance too, don’t worry) on a train that’s basically a travelling Communist propaganda show. Eventually she ends up back in her home city of St. Petersburg — sorry, Petrograd — a city transformed beyond recognition from the one she grew up in. Here she suffers shattering personal loss, tremendous risk, artistic growth, and more than one betrayal. Marina, as a fictional poet, interacts with several real-life characters from Russian literature, including Maxim Gorky and Anna Akhmatova. Through it all, she is driven by a ruthless determination to survive.

I’m no expert on Russian history; to this non-expert it felt like, as in the first book, Fitch was capturing the tenor and uncertainty of those turbulent times perfectly, showing us a Russian revolution and civil war that was so much more complex than the simplified pocket version we learned in school — an ever-shifting world of changing alliances, power-hungry rulers, and people like Marina just trying to survive.

And all this before Stalin ever arrives on the scene!

There are many more things that could happen to Marina, and that will happen to Russia, but we’ve already learned from the prologue to the first book that an older Marina will be making her life far from her beloved Russia, and the ending of Chimes gives us an idea of how that will happen, without promising another volume. If this is the end of Marina’s story, I think the author has done a good job of bringing reader and character through those difficult years.

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Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini

This was an interesting and informative story based on the lives of several real women (one main character is a composite character, but the rest are actual people) who were part of the resistance movement in Nazi Germany. One is an American woman married to a German man, another a German woman who has studied in the US and returned home, another a Jewish student. Each of them watches, as the story unfolds from the early 1930s into the war years, as the country slides into totalitarian dictatorship, and each woman must decide what role she is willing to play, and what price she is willing to pay.

While the author’s style kept me from feeling deeply invested in the characters — I always felt at a bit of an arm’s length from them — the depiction of pre-war and war-time Germany under Hitler was fascinating, and I loved learning more about the roles women played within the Resistance.

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Annelies, by David Gillham

The premise of Annelies is very simple: what if Anne Frank had survived? What might her life have been like after the camps? Would she have been able to adapt to postwar life in Amsterdam? How would the war have changed her? Would she have achieved her dream of being a writer?

In this novel, everything in Anne’s life unfolds exactly as it did in real life — up until the crucial moment when Anne’s sister Margot dies in Bergen-Belsen. Instead of dying herself a short time later, this fictional version of Anne survives, to eventually be liberated. As in reality, the only other survivor of the eight Jews hidden in the “Secret Annexe” is Anne’s father, Otto. Her diary has also survived, but now she is the one who must decide what to do with this record of the war years she spent in hiding.

In many ways, of course, what Gillham is writing here is just a fictionalized version of what did happen to many people — though six million European Jews died in the Nazi camps, many did not die, but survived to try to integrate back into society alongside the very people who had, in many cases, betrayed them to the Nazis. The added twist here in making Anne Frank the survivor is that she does have the diary, which makes her the bearer of a potentially powerful message to the postwar world. But does she want to share it.

When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night with my students, I often contrast one of his bleaker passages with the well-known passage from Anne Frank’s diary where she states that she believes that despite everything, people are still basically good at heart. Both Wiesel and Frank were intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful teenagers when they were sent to the camps: the difference in tone between the two passages obviously lies mostly in the fact that we never get to hear what Anne Frank’s reflections might have been like after going to Bergen-Belson. Her diary was written while she was in hiding, while Wiesel wrote Night after Auschwitz (and after having some years to reflect on the experience of the camps).

The Anne Frank who emerges in this fictional re-creation is not unlike Elie Wiesel, in some ways: angry, scarred, disillusioned, but also determined (eventually) to make sure that the world knows what happened to the Jews of Europe, and never allows it to happen again. The novel focuses mainly on the first year after the war, while she is still struggling with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, trying to forge a new relationship with her father and figure out how to live in an Amsterdam that she can never truly consider home again.

For many people, the powerful piece of writing that is Anne Frank’s diary has been boiled down in memory (or report — for those who haven’t read it) to that one inspiring quote about believing people are good at heart. People often forget that the diary is a complex portrait of a brilliant, strong-willed, sometimes troubled teenager living in constant fear for her life. Battles of will with her mother, sister and housemates, the rise and fading of a romance with literally the only other young person in the house, and Anne’s own reflections on life, war, death, God, humanity and her own legacy, make the diary in its fullness a portrait of a very real and complicated young woman — which makes the tragedy of her death all the more poignant. Some readers may not like the fact that Gillham imagines a different ending for her in Annelies, but I found the book compelling. It reminded me of the depth and complexity of the diary itself, of the difficult experiences of those who did survive the Holocaust, and, once again, of the tragedy of the life that Anne Frank and millions of others never got to live.

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