Category Archives: Fiction — historical

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

essexserpentThis book reminded me a bit of The Lie Tree, which I read and liked last year — although this is a novel for adults and The Lie Tree was a YA novel. Both novels are set in Victorian England, in that era that Matthew Arnold describes so well in the poem “Dover Beach,” when

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 
 
With Darwin’s theories of evolution and other scientific discoveries shattering long-held beliefs and certainties, the Victorians lived in a world of uncertainty and doubt that seems more familiar than we might expect, out here on the teetering edge of this new century. Sarah Perry’s main characters are the recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a woman fascinated by scientific discovery and chafing at the restrictions her society places on a woman’s mind, and clergyman Will Ransome, a rational man who believes that his Anglican faith can blend seamlessly with the new science.
 
When word comes that a mysterious sea-serpent has been sighted in the waters near Will’s parish, he is angry at the superstitious response of the villagers. Cora, meanwhile, coming to the village from outside, is fascinated, sure she is about to be  present for the discovery of a new species, that she will finally have a role in advancing human knowledge and a make her own name as a woman scientist. (There’s a nice shout-out here to Newfoundland’s giant squid, which had been believed to be a mythical creature until clergyman Moses Harvey photographed one in 1874. I’ve often visited the preserved remains of a more recent giant squid at our provincial museum; the giant squid’s mention in this novel is a reminder that in the Victorian era, science was peeling back the layers of mystery and mythology — and, for some, removing religious faith as well).
Despite their differences, Will and Cora are drawn to each other – but this is no simple opposites-attract love story. Will is married to his adored Stella and they have a family; Cora is pursued by the doctor who attended her husband in his illness, and adored by her devoted servant Martha. The secondary characters, their passions and obsessions, their web of interrelationships, are as carefully and lovingly drawn as main characters Will and Cora. I found this an absorbing and fascinating novel.
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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

lincolnIt’s an interesting reading summer when Lincoln in the Bardo is not the first, but the second, highly experimental, postmodern novel about a famous American president I’ve read (the other one being, of course, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings). Lincoln in the Bardo landed on my to-read list after numerous recommendations from trusted sources. I found it slow to get into, a novel I resisted being drawn in by at first, but ended up loving it and being deeply moved by it.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes places in the hours and days immediately following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie. The “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife, not entirely unlike some conceptions of Purgatory in Christian imagining — not a place of either torment or reward, but a kind of limbo, a waiting-room on the way to whatever the afterlife holds. Souls who don’t or can’t or won’t move on to another plane of existence are stranded in this state, hanging around the graveyard in denial about the fact that they’re actually dead, clinging to this life with its passions and hopes instead of moving forward. It’s this chorus of the only-mostly-dead who narrate and comment, in a variety of voices, on the newly arrived Lincoln boy and the intense, stormy grief of the father who comes to visit his son’s body.

There’s so much going on here it’s hard to explain it all, even though in some ways the scope of the story is quite narrow. The part that I struggled with was not the scenes of the dead speaking in their various voices from beyond the grave — I had no trouble accepting that as a narrative device. Rather, I had trouble with the expository chapters sprinkled in between, where another plethora of voices narrates and comments upon what’s happening in the “real world.”

These historical accounts — usually only a sentence or two from each — are drawn from eyewitnesses and later chroniclers, describing Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House, President Lincoln’s response to it, the state of the American Civil War at the time, etc. These snippets of historical voices are placed next to one another, sometimes complementing and often directly contradicting each other, echoing the technique of the graveyard voices and reminding us that eyewitness accounts can disagree with each other even over something as basic as the colour of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes or the phase of the moon on the night Willie died. It’s a wonderful, fascinating technique that makes us call history into question, and Saunders handles it as well as he handles everything else in the book.

But. But. BUT.

There’s a big but. And I understand it and I get why he did but I still struggled with it, and it kept me from fully immersing in the book for quite awhile. These “historical sources” that populate the expository, real-world chapters — most of them actually are historical, drawn from historians’ books as well as various contemporary accounts of the events. But a substantial number — less than half, but more than a quarter, I’d estimate — are wholly made up by Saunders, and there’s no distinction made in the way he credits and cites them — the made-up sources look just as real as the real ones, and I was only able to figure out which was which by googling (which of course I did because, have you met me?).

Again, I 100% understand from a literary point of view what Saunders is doing here. He’s playing around with our perceptions of truth, history, story. He’s telling a “historical” story and turning it into “fiction,” but taking away the sheen of verisimilitude that makes “historical fiction” (including the kind I write) feel like a transparent glimpse into history when in fact it’s not. Saunders forces us to question our definitions of both “history” and “fiction” at every turn. Here’s a historical event, narrated by a chorus of fictional characters who aren’t even “real” within the fictional confines of the story — they’re dead and trapped in a mythological afterlife. Then there are these supposedly reliable expository chapters in between, where we should be able to count on objective, dispassionate voices — but not only do these contradict and argue with one another, but some of them are fictional as well, and we can’t tell which ones! It’s a brilliant and at the same time a frustrating technique. Even as I admired it, I struggled with it.

My copy of Lincoln in the Bardo was a library copy (I read mostly e-books, but the structure of this one seemed better fitted to reading on paper) and I’ll be honest: if I’d been reading a copy I owned myself, I would have gotten little sticky-tab circles and colour-coded the historical snippets to indicate to myself which were fictional and which were real. I know that doing that would have undermined the whole point Saunders was making about the unreliability of history, but I would have done it anyway, but I am just that obsessed with “facts” and correctly citing your sources. We are what we are.

Anyway, all this to say that I both admired and struggled with the writer’s technique for the first half of the book, and then I just gave up and accepted it and allowed myself to fall into it. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief, loss, life and death, and once I let the book be what it was, it almost made me cry. The juxtaposition of Lincoln’s grief over his son’s death, with the grief of an entire country over the deaths of its young men in war — a war that Lincoln knows most people hold him responsible for — is powerful. But just as powerful are the personal vignettes of the struggling graveyard characters — people who, for one reason or another, cannot let go of their regrets, their dreams, the hopes for the lives they were supposed to have lived, and the unfinished business they left behind. Letting go of that vision is essential to their ability to move on, and this is why I guess Saunders chose a Buddhist word to describe this afterlife, since letting go — detachment — is so closely associated with Buddhist thought. (Although I would argue it’s there in some sense in all religions, and maybe all sane systems of thought — certainly it’s there in Christianity, whose founder told us we must lose our lives in order to gain them).

As one ghost after another struggles to let go of the old life and move forward into the unknown beyond, the one living man in their midst — Abraham Lincoln — has to let go of the son he dreamed of raising to adulthood, and move back into his own world of the living, in which he holds the the fate of thousands of other men’s sons in his hands.

This is an incredible, powerful, infuriating, challenging and ultimately fulfilling book. I’m so glad I read it.

Still haven’t completely let go of the idea of those little stickers, though. 

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The Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford

willowfrostI very much enjoyed Jamie Ford’s first novel, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, so I had relatively high expectations for this book. Once again, Asian-American author Ford brings us into a little-known corner of American immigrant history. This time, it’s the Chinese community in 1920s and 30s Seattle, and the involvement of Chinese musicians and actors in the entertainment world — in opera, music halls, and eventually in the nascent film industry, before Hollywood became the centre of the American film world.

Another world we get to glimpse in this novel is that of orphanages in the period. The main character, William, is a 12-year-old Chinese boy grows up in a Roman Catholic orphanage, not knowing for sure whether his parents are dead or have abandoned him. (The fact that most orphans of the time were not in fact orphans, but children whose parents gave them up because they could not afford to raise them, is very well explored here). He comes to believe that the Chinese movie star Willow Frost is actually his mother, and sets out on a quest to find her.

While it’s clear that Ford has done his research and the glimpses of history we get in this novel are fascinating, the book didn’t connect with me emotionally as well as I’d hoped. I certainly found it enjoyable, but something about the way he wrote kept me at an emotional distance from both William and Willow, unable to full feel the terrible experiences that they go through. For this reason I’ll have to mentally file this book under “liked it but didn’t love it,” but I certainly learned things I didn’t know before about the places and time period, which is valuable in and of itself.

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The Murder of Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King

maryrussellOther than having a deliberately misleading title (Mary Russell’s the hero of the series — she obviously isn’t murdered in this book, but is it about an apparent murder of our Fearless Heroine, or is it about Mary Russell murdering someone else? The ambiguity is not accidental), this is another good addition to King’s series about the intrepid Mary Russell and her May/December marriage to an aging Sherlock Holmes. What the novel really is, regardless of whether Mary apparently gets murdered or murders anyone, is “The Backstory of Mrs. Hudson.”

As in the original Conan Doyle novels, Mrs. Hudson is Holmes’s landlady at Baker Street; in the Russell/Holmes series, she has followed Holmes into retirement in Sussex where she serves as his housekeepeer. She is also something of a maternal figure to Russell, who was taken in by the kindly Mrs. Hudson when she was a teenager, so when a mysterious stranger shows up with a possible threat to Mrs. Hudson several years later, it’s not surprising that Mary swings into action to protect the older woman.

Most of the story unfolds through flashbacks into Clara/Clarissa Hudson’s early life, tying together threads from two Conan Doyle short stories and weaving them into the Holmes/Russell canon. The short stories contain characters named Hudson with no suggestion that they are related or connected to Holmes’s Mrs. Hudson. But in King’s retelling, they are all connected, and the backstory adds layers not only to Mrs. Hudson but to her long relationship with the great detective, explaining why she has stood by him so faithfully for so many years.

Sandwiched in between some heavier books I’ve been reading over the summer, this was a great, light diversion, and a worthy addition to the extra-Doyle Holmes cannon, as are all the Laurie King books.

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Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

halfbloodbluesIt’s always great when a bok is able to take you to a place you have never been, geographically or historically or both. Half Blood Blues does this through the voice of jazz musician Sid Griffiths, an African-American bass player who lived in Berlin as a young man in the 1930s. All was going well for Sid and his bandmates — a collection of African-Americans and Germans, with the German members including Jews and one mixed-race German — until the Nazis came to power. Decrying jazz as a degenerate influence, the new regime began shutting down jazz was played and arresting musicians who didn’t fit the “Aryan” mold. 

Though Sid narrates the story in a quirky, memorable voice filled with old-time jazzy slang, and most of his time in the novel is spent with his lifelong frenemy, the drummer Chip, the real focus of the story is on another character. Hieronymus Falk is the one mixed-race German member of the band — the child of a white German mother and an African father, an outsider everywhere, an abomination to Nazi theories of racial purity. Hiero, the youngest member of the group and the most vulnerable, is also the most talented, a phenomenal trumpeter who wins the attention of Louis Armstrong. When those of the band members who haven’t yet been arrested are forced to flee Berlin for Paris, personal tensions and jealousies among the band members come to a head as that city falls to the invading German army.

The story is being narrated in flashbacks from the perspective of 1992, when Sid and Chip are guests at the premier of a documentary about Hiero’s life and music. The opportunity to revisit the past reveals long-hidden secrets and lies. While there were a few plot points in this novel that didn’t entirely hold together for me story-wise, it was an beautifully-drawn glimpse into a place and time rarely visited in fiction.

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Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, by Stephen O’Connor

jeffersonSally Hemings, the enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who was also his sister-in-law and probably the mother of four of his children, is a fascinating historical character. She fascinates me because she is a woman about whom very little is known, who lived out her life in close proximity and almost certainly in a sexual relationship with a man about whom we know a great deal — and that relationship colours and changes everything we know, or think we know, about Jefferson. Jefferson’s stance on slavery –he was theoretically opposed to it, yet owned hundreds of slaves and freed almost none of them within his lifetime (almost all those he did free were members of the Hemings family, including Sally’s children) — already makes him a complicated historical figure. The personal aspect of his relationship with Sally (who is sometimes referred to as his “slave mistress,” a problematic term as it suggests a relationship that is at once both consensual and non-consensual) only makes for more fertile ground for a novelist who can go in imagination where historians are not able to tread.

I read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s 1979 novel Sally Hemings many years ago, and of course was intrigued by Stephen O’Connor’s recent re-imagining of the story when it appeared last year. O’Connor’s novel is weighty, ingenious, beautifully written and, like the historical relationship it depicts, problematic and controversial. I loved it, but I’m also well aware of its limitations.

The structure of the novel itself is interesting. The bulk of it is made up of very short chapters depicting scenes from Jefferson’s and Hemings’ lives told in a fairly straightforward historical-fiction style, in the third person omniscient voice. In between these scenes are excerpts from an imagined first-person narrative by Hemings in which she tells her own version of the story and relates her feelings in her own words. There are also short segments from actual historical narratives of the time, including a memoir by one of the Hemings’ (and likely Jefferson’s) sons, Madison Hemings, short expository pieces in the author’s voice giving additional historical background, and weirder, more postmodern vignettes in which the author imagines various afterlives for Jefferson and Hemings. In one, Thomas Jefferson glimpses Sally Hemings on a subway; in another, he’s being tortured in a particularly grim version of Hell by a sadistic prison guard; in yet another, Jefferson (who died a century before the earliest modern feature films) watches a movie about his own life; in yet another, Jefferson and Hemings together visit a museum exhibit that explores their relationship. Some of these vignettes are more successful than others; there were places where I found myself wondering what they added to the overall story, but some are insightful and beautifully crafted. I can see why the author wanted to include them.

The core historical narrative — the story that unfolds through the third-person narrator interspersed with the imagined first-person voice of Hemings herself — presents two complex individuals in a complicated relationship. In this portrayal, Hemings does develop some tender feelings towards Jefferson over the years of their sexual relationship, but her feelings are never free of resentment and always overshadowed by the overwhelming fact of her (and her family’s) enslavement. It’s clear from the beginning of the relationship, when Hemings is sixteen and Jefferson is her forty-six-year-old owner, that there is nothing remotely consensual about this relationship. But it is also not straightforwardly depicted as rape. O’Connor’s Jefferson has romantic feelings about Hemings and almost courts her, while at the same time never imagining her as his equal in any real way. Sally Hemings, meanwhile, is both repelled and attracted by Jefferson. She believes she “could have said no,” yet questions that belief from various angles over the years as their relationship continues, and leads the reader to question it too.

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The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

kitchenhouseI’d been hearing about this book for awhile, so it was good to finally get to read it. Set in the late 1790s-early 1800s in Virginia, this novel explores slavery from an unusual perspective. The main character, Lavinia, is a white girl, an Irish orphan who is raised among the slaves of Captain Pyke, the owner of Tall Oaks plantation. Because of her status both as an orphan and an indentured servant, she sees the black slaves with whom she lives as her family, calling Mae and George “Mama” and “Papa,” and thinking of the twins Fanny and Beattie as her sisters. Yet the colour of her skin means that as she grows older, the Pyke family begins to see Lavinia as being more like one of them, and opportunities begin to open for her that are closed to the people she thinks of as her family.

This novel does what seemed to me to be a really good job of exploring the complicated dynamics of plantation slaves and their masters through the eyes of someone who is both an insider and an outsider in both the black and white worlds. Complicating these dynamics, and well explored in the book, is the fact that skin colour is not actually a reliable way to distinguish between these people, as so many of the slaves were in fact more than half-white as a result of multiple generations of master-slave rape. Many of the women in the novel are forced to accept that bearing the master’s babies, and seeing those children — in some cases as “white” as their fathers — raised as slaves, is simply part of the burden of slavery. What really makes the difference is not the actual colour of a person’s skin but whether he or she is designated “white” or “Negro” by society. The complex web of a biological family in which some members of the family own others as property is well explored here.

This book did have its drawbacks — I found the writing style a little too straightforward sometimes, in much the same way as I’ve complained about Ken Follett’s writing: everything on the table and not enough subtlety in dialogue or character development. At least one major choice by a character has a huge impact on the plot and doesn’t seem to me to be in character or sufficiently well motivated, and the ending was resolved a bit too neatly for my liking. But these are largely matters of personal taste, and the novel’s success makes it clear that many, many readers did not find these things to be a problem at all. Certainly if you’re interested in a white writer’s view of slavery through a unique character perspective, you will want to pick up The Kitchen House.

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