AnHonestMan.jpg

Last year I went to visit Berlin for the first time over a long weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that’s still so haunted by the after effects of war. Certainly there is more to this thriving city which is dynamic and fascinating in many ways but walking through the streets there are evident battle scars around every corner. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this would be the case because it was turned into a battlefield during WWII and then became a city literally divided by the Cold War. Given these facts it’d be virtually impossible to write about Berlin in the late 20th century without referring to the reverberating effects of these traumas.

Ben Fergusson rightly does so in both his first novel “The Spring of Kasper Meier” which describes the city soon after it was jointly occupied by the Allied powers and in his new novel “An Honest Man” which takes place in the time immediately preceding The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989. But these stories are filled with so many twists and surprises that they give a fascinating new perspective on this vibrant capital. He captures the lives of ordinary citizens in this shifting political landscape and focuses specifically on the lives of gay men during these periods. “An Honest Man” is centred around the life of Ralf, a teenager in Berlin with an English mother and German father. When Ralf encounters a Turkish man named Osman at a swimming pool he becomes embroiled in both a passionate love affair and a mysterious tale of espionage which completely upturns his life. It’s an utterly gripping tale of self-discovery and intrigue.

What’s often so striking reading about the lives of young people in such a politically contentious area is that the reality of its accompany tensions have become so completely normalised. Of course it seems normal to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. So for Ralf and his close group of friends who spend their summer going to the pool or watching arthouse films thrust upon them by Ralf’s cultured friend Stefan the fact of the wall’s presence is something glancingly referred to as they go about their lives preparing to go to university or pursuing their studious fascination with the natural world. The politics of it colour everything about their lives but doesn’t really impact them – until Ralf gets involved in spying on someone who may or may not be a Soviet informant. I admire how Fergusson evokes their lives fully capturing the sensory experience of this time and place.

Osman or “Oz” introduces Ralf to the music of Turkish folk singer Müzeyyen Senar. Here she sings "Kime Kin Ettin de"

There have been many coming of age novels written about gay men discovering their sexuality. But I appreciate how Fergusson gives a different spin describing the contoured dynamics of Ralf’s desires. He finds himself drawn to men yet he’s had a very close emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend Maike who is a fascinating character in her own right. He also has a strong platonic friendship with Stefan. But when Ralf finds a sexual connection with Osman the author evocatively describes the all-consuming freedom and heated passion of their relationship. It immediately overturns all the homophobic sentiments Ralf had previously expressed for a newfound acceptance of himself. Of course, this liberation doesn’t instantly make him into an entirely good person. The fact that Ralf is something of a dick (as his actions are frequently described throughout the novel) adds to the way he feels fully rounded and, like most teenagers, often more preoccupied with his own interests rather than the feelings of those closest to him.

I recall watching news footage of The Berlin Wall’s destruction when I was a child in 1989 and I remember wondering what it must have been like for all those people who finally didn’t have to live with this immense physical and political barrier any longer. So it was thrilling when the reality of this event is described in a climatic scene towards the end of the novel showing all the chaos and release of emotion which accompanied this new freedom of movement. “An Honest Man” achieves what’s best about historical fiction as it makes you reconsider how the dramatic events surrounding a large-scale political upheaval had different effects upon the lives of so many people who found themselves at the centre of it. And it does so with a story that’s both thrilling and filled with sensual delights.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBen Fergusson
2 CommentsPost a comment
DollFactory.jpg

When I can't sleep at night I have a habit of watching nature documentaries. At one point I found a programme that focuses on marsupials and there were two episodes on wombats. After discovering more about these rodent-like burrowers I was absolutely smitten and have become obsessed with watching videos about them ever since. It turns out I'm not alone as the Pre-Raphaelite artists of mid-nineteenth century London were also keen on these curious creatures – as described in this article about Dante Gabriel Rossetti's pet wombats. Elizabeth Macneal sent this to me because she is also a fan of wombats and one prominently features in her wonderfully immersive debut novel “The Doll Factory”. I always enjoy reading riveting Dickensian historical novels and Macneal's excellent book is at the same level as Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith” and Imogen Hermes Gowar's “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock”, but when I encountered the character of Guinevere the wombat in “The Doll Factory” I fell firmly in love with it. 

The novel is immediately captivating as it describes the tale of the Whittle sisters who work in a doll shop where they painstakingly fashion and paint dolls under the watchful gaze of the bullying proprietress. One sister named Iris who has a misshapen clavicle aspires to become an artist and practices her painting in secret. There's also Silas who is a peculiar taxidermist who fashions curiosities out of animal carcases which he sometimes sells to artists to use as models for their painting. Connecting these two characters is a crafty and sensitive ten year old boy named Albie who is saving to buy himself a new set of teeth while also trying to navigate the hard city streets doing odd jobs like procuring material for the doll shop or animal carcases for Silas. Their stories are set against the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the atmosphere is evoked with such excellent detail so that you feel the chaos, excitement and gritty realness of the city at this time.

Iris becomes involved in a movement of artists (which includes Gabriel Rossetti) during this period who self-consciously identified themselves as the PRB and sought to use intense colours, abundant detail and complex compositions in their artwork. She develops her craft while simultaneously working as a model for a particular artist. Macneal intelligently describes her difficult position as a woman in this period as she is shunned by her family for not sticking to a more traditional role and as a creative individual whose work won't be considered fairly alongside her male contemporaries. The plight of women is also depicted in the lives of different prostitutes (including Albie's sister) who are largely treated as disposable.

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Something this novel does so powerfully is capture the psychology of a character so steeped in his misogyny he doesn't recognize the violence he unleashes upon women as a crime. We follow his vile logic imagining scenarios of how he expects women to react to him so that when they act differently in reality he feels entirely justified in the violence he inflicts upon them. This is a chillingly effective technique of narrative which reminds me of the final section of Rachel Kushner's “The Mars Room”. While Macneal vividly captures a sociopath's logic, she describes with equal power Albie's good-hearted viewpoint. Though he may seem abrupt and evasive on the outside he has deep feelings and sympathy for the women closest to him. Something Macneal does so well in creating her characters is show how their words and actions don't always convey how they really feel about the people in their lives. In this way the author creates a lot of dramatic tension because we can see how people's pride and stubbornness can obstruct them from fostering the relationships they really desire.

I was thoroughly engaged and gripped throughout this powerful story which is written with such intelligence. It creatively meditates on the subjects of art and obsession – and if you happen to be a fan of wombats you'll be enthralled by the role one plays in the plot as well as the hilarious ingenuity of a character who writes a poem from the perspective of a remorseful wombat!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
OldBaggage_LissaEvans.jpg

It’s been a few years since I read Lissa Evans’ excellent novel “Crooked Heart”, but I remember loving her vivid characters and witty writing style. So when I heard that her new novel is a prequel to this earlier book I become intensely curious. “Crooked Heart” opened with a poignant description of Mattie, an aging intellectual who was very active in the Suffragette movement, before describing the journey her ward Noel takes out of London to escape the The Blitz in 1940. “Old Baggage” tells Mattie’s story prior to when the boy Noel came to live with her and depicts Britain at an interesting stage of its political history.

It’s 1928 and many people - including some of the women involved in the Suffragette movement - feel that their overall aims have been achieved because of the new Equal Franchise Act which granted equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21. However, Mattie is still frustrated by other inequalities between the sexes which persist and there’s also worrying fascist groups gaining in popularity – one of which is led by a former Suffragette. Mattie is the most endearing sort of stickler (who I admire but would be terrified to meet in real life) as she persists in delivering lectures to mostly bored crowds and has a new scheme to empower lackadaisical local girls by marching them through the heath like young activists/explorers. While this all makes it sound like a novel top heavy on history and politics it really doesn’t read that way. Rather, it’s a warm-hearted, comic and ultimately poignant portrayal of a group of women trying to balance their personal desires/values against the limitations of society at that time.

Although the story is a prequel, it felt like no prior knowledge of Mattie was necessary to enjoy this story of her and her household known as “The Mousehole” in Hampstead. It earned this nickname because it was a refuge for suffragettes to recover in when they were released from prison after hunger strikes in what was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. But now Mattie’s only stalwart companion in the house is Florrie Lee who is nicknamed “The Flea.” They are just friends but Florrie possesses latent romantic feelings towards Mattie. Her unexpressed sexuality is subtly described with a lot of feeling and care: “she loved Mattie. Living with her in simple friendship might be akin to dancing the Charleston when what you really ached for was a slow waltz – but the music still played; it was, in its way, still a dance.” It’s interesting how even though Mattie is such a progressive there were social issues even she wasn’t prepared to fight for in this era of history or, perhaps, she wasn’t even aware of them.  

What’s so clever about this novel is the way Evans gives such a compelling and many-sided look at politics from this period, but they are threaded so expertly into the plot they don’t obstruct the pleasure of the story. I found myself heartily engaged in scenes such as Mattie chasing a thief through a fairground or delighting in some deliciously cutting turns of phrase such as when Mattie describes a girl as being “zestless as a marzipan lemon”. Only after reading certain scenes did I think back and reflect on the way complicated social issues were built into the framework of these characters’ stories. It made me consider the difficult personal sacrifices individuals must make for a higher cause and how challenging it is to gain a historical perspective on a time period when you’re living through it. The story also subtly shows how political ideas influence people and reverberate over the greater span of time.

Many other writers would show the grit and agony the Suffragettes went through when starving themselves to protest against flagrant inequalities and the men in power who refused to do anything to change them. Instead, Evans refers to this and shows its continuing impact in Mattie’s dogged attitude lecturing and teaching anyone she encounters. I think this displays an admirable restraint in a writer because the impact of these activists’ self-sacrifice is no less intensely felt and we get a more complex picture of how seismic social changes have a multi-layered effect over time. While it’s important not to blinker ourselves against the horrors of history there can be an anaesthetizing effect when fiction gives detailed descriptions of harrowing situations. So it’s a difficult thing to make readers feel the heat of that anger while not making them want to close themselves off to the reality of it, but this is something Evans does very well.

Cat_and_Mouse_Act_Poster_-_1914.jpg

Evans also delivers that wonderful pleasure readers can get from reading about characters in situations where social rules are flagrantly disregarded. There’s a memorable scene in a jail where Mattie (as a victim of a crime) is expected to behave in a certain way, but her principles and resentment over the way police abused Suffragettes hilariously prevent her from complying and make her follow her own independent corrective actions. Her persistence and obstinacy to the cause exhausts nearly everyone around her, but she’s not immune to change. The story shows how her attitudes incrementally transform as she must temper her personality to allow for other people’s feelings.

While the primary journey of this novel was such a delight to read, I did feel that the story didn’t deliver an entirely satisfying conclusion for several strands within it. There are some periphery characters who we’re given touching private moments with, but their individual dilemmas feel slightly left behind in the greater sweep of Mattie’s story. She’s undeniably the centre of the novel and she’s such a mesmerising figure she deserves to be the focus. But when she reaches a certain crisis point and fall from grace it feels like everyone else is somewhat short-changed in the process of her redemption. However, the pleasures of this novel are manifold and the skill demonstrated in rendering history in such a lively, complex way is so admirable. It also felt especially moving at the end of “Old Baggage” reading about the genesis of a substitute parent-child relationship which changes so dramatically at the beginning of “Crooked Heart”. Mostly I admire Lissa Evans’ creative and imaginative style of writing about ornery characters in a way that makes me love them.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLissa Evans
6 CommentsPost a comment
Painter to the King Amy Sackville.jpg

One of my highlights of visiting Madrid for the first time was being able to go to the Museo del Prado and see Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas in person. This is a painting I’d studied in art history at university and appreciated for its technique, but there’s something so arresting about seeing it in person with its odd composition and the confrontational stares from several figures depicted. So I was enticed to read Amy Sackville’s most recent novel because it portrays the life of Velázquez in his appointment to the royal court of King Philip IV of Spain. I wasn’t prepared for what a unique take the author gives on the historical novel which doesn’t simply tell the story the painter, the king and people associated with his court, but Sackville inserts her own voice and invites the reader to participate as well. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Duncker’s “Sophie and the Sybil” which depicts George Eliot’s tangled relationships as well as Duncker’s own feelings towards Eliot. In “Painter to the King” we’re led through Velázquez’s major paintings and shown the scenes and social milieu they sprung out of. But we’re also drawn to focus on certain aspects of the paintings (as pictorial details are reproduced throughout the text) and paintings which have been lost but which we know about through historical references. Sackville queries the gaps in history and the way the figures involved wanted their images and time period to be remembered. It forms such an original take on the past which invites the reader to participate in looking at its many layers as well as enjoying the experience of it in the story.

Philip IV of Spain is a fascinating figure as he was married to a French princess at the age of ten and made king of Spain and Portugal at the age of fifteen. That’s quite a responsibility for such a young boy! Of course, throughout his life he was bred and trained to uphold the Spanish Empire and pressured to secure his lineage with a son. Sackville refers to the urgency he feels to produce a healthy son throughout the novel and as the story progresses it becomes evident this isn’t a novel so much about Velázquez, but about this boy trapped in an impossibly high pressure situation. The painter faithfully records the toll Philip’s royal position takes on him with wrinkles and shadows around his eyes. I felt a growing sympathy for him as Philip frequently takes refuge in the quiet periods he spends with Velázquez while being painted. Sackville also compelling describes the way Philip struggles with his duties, urges, faith and fidelity. At the same time there is a tension between the professional and personal relationship Philip and Velázquez share. But Philip emerges as the most dynamic and fully rounded character in the novel.

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Many other fascinating figures emerge as Sackville records this period of the royal court in Spain. There’s a red haired actress who sacrifices her promising career to be Philip’s long term mistress and she bears him the healthy son he always longed for but this boy must be classified as illegitimate. There’s also Sor Maria or Mary of Jesus of Ágreda who was a visionary abbess and spiritual writer that Philip takes as a trusted advisor and he corresponds with her throughout his life. So I felt somewhat disappointed that Sackville dipped into the stories of figures like this, but didn’t develop them further. I appreciated that doing so would have taken over the narrative and strayed from the central focus of the novel. I felt the author’s primary intent with this story is summed up in this quote where she’s writing about Velázquez’s process of painting: “To describe a thing, you describe the space around it; until you encounter the brim, the fringe, the outline, where the thing’s edges meet the world you find it in.” But it sometimes detracted from the pleasure of the novel that Sackville so determinedly portrays the outlines of life at court and glimpses of its most intriguing figures without going further into the heart of their stories.

However, overall I really enjoyed and appreciated how much more Sackville adds to the experience of a historical novel. It was fascinating to consider how this accumulation of paintings of the king must have made Philip reflective in a way not many other people could be in the 1600s because most wouldn’t have a visual record of their lives. It’s interesting to consider how this compares to our experience today since so many people now do have free access to photography which casually records our images over the years. Just as Philip must consider the way Velázquez has chosen to interpret his reign, we consider the way we’ve selected and catalogued out images to give a certain slant to our lives. Though I sometimes felt ambiguous about the authorial intrusion of the narrative, it felt poignant in how Sackville expresses how looking at paintings is a desire for a shared experience. There’s a tragedy in never really knowing how personal experience syncs with or differs from the figures and mood captured in paint. It’s a complex way of engaging with the past and I admire how Sackville gives so many unique ways of seeing this beguiling period of history.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmy Sackville
6 CommentsPost a comment
URSULA FLIGHT cover.jpg

I read Margaret Cavendish's writing for the first time recently and, while I enjoyed its creativity, vigour and sheer oddity, I longed to get a taste of what day to day life would have really been like for an intelligent female writer of the 17th century. Danielle Dutton partly answered this in her take on Cavendish's life in her recent exquisite novel “Margaret the First”. Now Anna-Marie Crowhurst has imagined the dramatic life of a female playwright named Ursula who narrates her own story from her birth in 1664 to the beginning of her writing career. She gives a richly detailed sense of what life would have been like for a privileged upperclass girl growing up on a rural estate. Amidst her narrative we're also given various documents including sketches of plays, letters, lists and notes which not only bring her story to life but chart the evolution of her creative process in becoming a writer.

Ursula's father educates her from an early age sparking her interests in astrology and literature. Though her creativity was fostered in this protected environment, she quickly finds it's scorned by the larger world when she's forced to enter a marriage with a wealthy nobleman and become a pious lady. Ursula has a highly romantic sensibility and she has a hard reckoning with the passion of love and sex, but this isn't a story about a young woman finding the right man. It's more about the development of Ursula's creative talent for translating the lives and issues of her day into drama. Gradually she learns how real life can be folded into fictional dramatic works in such a way that it entertains and reflects back to people their own prejudices as well as their humanity. She also discovers theatre is a collaborative hive where the actors, writers and producers all interpret and transform the playwright's text into become a live show. Opportunities for women to creatively express themselves were obviously severely limited in this era but Ursula finds a way to testify to her own experience and that of the women of her time.

Crowhurst's writing has a wonderful lightness to it. A lot of literary fiction can be so gloomy when confronting serious subjects, but “The Illumination of Ursula Flight” is extremely engaging in how it seriously shows the plight of a creative woman in this time and the challenges she faces without getting bogged down in misery. The story evocatively comes to life in the details of the smells and sights of what life was like in this period from one character who refuses to have a rotten tooth extracted to the messy streets of London covered in refuse. She also gives a keen sense of the women's fashion as well as the politics of the Stuart period rumbling in the background. Most of all I became enamoured with Ursula's character and became wrapped up in following her journey. This historical novel is impressively imaginative, clever and fun in the way it brings her to life and shows the development of her artistic sensibility.

thumbnail_Parentations.jpg

There's something so pleasurable about getting fully immersed in a big epic novel and Kate Mayfield's new “The Parentations” had me wrapped up in its story for days. It skilfully delves into fascinating pockets of history while building a story about the tense relationship between a group of characters who have gained a kind of immortality. While there is a fantasy element to the story of a life-sustaining liquid drawn from the tectonic cracks of Iceland's lunar-like landscape, the novel is also infused with dark gothic overtones involving a pair of reclusive wealthy sisters whose lives have been beset by tragedy, a manipulative woman who learns the art of hypnotism & mesmerism and a red-haired artistic boy subjected to torturous experiments. But other sections of the book have a Dickensian feel with a superstitious girl named Willa taken from a gloomy orphanage and a depiction of the notoriously brutal Millbank prison in London. As the story progresses over the centuries it also shows London's transformations through seasons, wars, a fluctuating economy and redevelopments. All this is wrapped in an overarching tale about a boy's heartrending separation from his mother to keep him safe and protect an ancient secret for evading death.

Mayfield has a skilful way of engaging with the politics of different ages through the personal stories of her characters. Beginning in Iceland, a ground-breaking secret about a wondrous elixir becomes the point a conflict between a group of Icelandic farmers and a wealthy Danish family intent on stealing this secret for themselves. Iceland was still under Danish rule at this time and the story of this struggle in some ways mirrors the lengths of time it takes for a nation to achieve full independence from a foreign monarchy's rule. Then there are the sisters Verity and Constance whose privileged Catholic family were forced to hide their beliefs in times after the English Reformation. It's interesting how the faith and degree of piety of each sister transforms over the ages of their extended lives. There's also the story of Jonesy, a Chinese boy taken on as an apprentice after he was won through gambling. Jonesy's homosexuality leads him to engage in different furtive encounters while England still criminalized same sex acts. His story powerfully portrays the desolate state of mind a gay man must have felt when being continuously persecuted for his impulse to love.

I also felt strongly compelled by the character of Clovis who grew up in the most humble of circumstances in rural Iceland. Her method for escaping such a dire, humble life is to take advantage of every situation she can and shore up power to ferociously protect herself. While she's rightly portrayed as a villain it's also interesting how her story shows the way an individual's survivalist instinct can ultimately lead to a particularly somber kind of isolation. It's fascinating how this novel can explore a different kind of character development as its protagonists lives are stretched out over centuries rather than decades. In some ways the characters change and develop in radical ways, but also retain essential elements of their personalities and belief systems. At times this challenging method of narrative doesn't feel like it can fully explore all the challenges such a situation would produce. Some dramatic situations feel a bit rushed and too reliant upon coincidence. But, on the whole, Mayfield maintains an admirable control of the characters' evolution in sync with the long stretch of time that the novel covers and the story is consistently engrossing. “The Parentations” builds a wondrous panoramic view of history and disparate groups of people united like a family over centuries.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKate Mayfield
sealwomans.jpg

There’s something so wonderful about being wholly drawn into a richly imagined historical novel that both illuminates a somewhat forgotten or not-widely-known period of history and gives voice to people who are only glancingly referred to in the history books. Sally Magnusson does all this in her debut novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which recounts the abduction of over four hundred Icelandic citizens from their homes in the year 1627 by pirates from Morocco and Algeria. These prisoners were sold into slavery and a ransom for their release wasn’t obtained until several years later – by which point many of those abducted had either died, been irretrievably lost or converted/integrated into life along the Barbary Coast. Copies still exist of a famous account of these abductions written by a Reverend who was captured himself, but Magnusson focuses her novel more on the journey and inner-struggles of his wife Ásta. It’s noted how “others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?” In doing so, this novel brilliantly engages with many of the heartrending conflicts a woman in Ásta’s position must have faced while also powerfully illuminating the cultural importance of storytelling and the complicated dynamics of love.

A number of years ago I visited Iceland and took a road trip around the country. It’s such a bizarre alien-like landscape with its flat volcanic-soil and coastal shores dotted with black & white puffins and their colourful beaks. I admired how the stark beauty and bleakness of this striking environment is powerfully evoked in this novel. But the author also brings to life the culture and daily life of its people from the production of Skyr (a yogurt-like foodstuff traditionally made from sheep’s milk) to the use of puffin bones to keep the kitchen fires going or the frequent retelling of Icelandic Sagas which are such a rich part of the country’s oral tradition. I also got such a strong sense of how the country basically operates as one small hardworking community. As Magnusson notes, it’s easy to empathize with how the kidnapping of over 400 citizens back in the 1600s would deeply traumatize the entirety of this sparsely-populated country. The story also conveys what an enormous culture shock it’d be for these very isolated Christian people who were abducted to suddenly be engulfed in the brightly-coloured multi-national predominantly-Muslim community of Algiers.

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychological implications of a diaspora, especially when people are forcibly removed from their native homeland or are forced to leave because of severe problems in their birth country. The real heart of this novel lies in Ásta’s dilemma as she’s suddenly left on her own in Algiers with a daughter and an infant son. Her rambunctious husband Ólafur is swiftly used as a negotiator between the Ottoman Empire that was seeking ransom for these slaves and the king of Denmark (because Iceland was under Danish rule). Throughout the many years of their separation Ásta is torn between maintaining her faith in their rescue and building a new life in this foreign land. This includes conflicted feelings about religion, loyalty to family and maintaining her own sense of cultural identity. There comes a point when the workings of time create a certain psychological distance from her homeland. Her existence beforehand becomes idealized and nostalgia takes on a life of its own: “memory is like that, always so eager to aid you in missing what you can no longer have and forgetting the rest.” Magnusson writes poignantly about how story-telling is a means of psychological escape from the horrors of reality as well as a way of maintaining a connection with one’s own culture and personal genealogical history.

Barbary corsairs

Barbary corsairs

The author also weaves into her story two somewhat fantastical elements and characters who tread the border between myth and reality. One is an eccentric old woman who has visions and believes herself to be a seal that has lost its skin and is consequently stranded on land in the shape of a woman. Another is an elf from the legends Ásta heard in her youth. At first I thought this later character was merely an eccentric quirk within the story or simply a fanciful notion within Ásta’s imagination, but his inclusion comes to powerfully represent her character’s inner conflict, her stymied desires and a representation of her own “otherness” as someone that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere. These characters also show the way that our daily lives are composed of both the hard fact of reality and our subjective experience of the world.

As I neared the end of reading this tale it became something much more for me than simply a vividly-imagined historical novel, but a personally touching meditation on the choices we’re forced to make in life. Over the years we’re inevitably presented with crossroads where we must choose to take one path or another and it’s difficult not to be consumed with grief for the potential joys we’ve had to sacrifice in making these hard decisions. But Magnusson writes how “we cannot live in two worlds. And in lamenting too long what belongs in the other we bring upon ourselves and others only destruction.” In dramatically bringing to life Ásta’s story she sympathetically presents a fully rounded understanding of this turmoil and the importance of fostering the lives we’ve chosen. “The Sealwoman’s Gift” also powerfully shows the numerous and complicated repercussions of how the evil industry of slavery caused rifts in communities which have never been and can never be repaired. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Magnusson
6 CommentsPost a comment
revolution.jpg

Recently I was discussing with someone what makes good historical fiction. The kind of historical novels I love most are those that build stories out of footnotes in history to give you a different perspective on a particular time period. There are often little intriguing details you come across in historical accounts which obviously have larger stories to tell. It provides such a tempting jumping off point for an author to fictionally fill in the gaps within history books. Pursuing the question of why these gaps exist is itself an interesting question that can also be explored in the telling. So it’s not surprising that Andrea Camilleri was intrigued by the fact that the widow donna Eleanora became the viceroy of Sicily in 1677 for only twenty seven days after her husband’s death and how there are only a few references to the radical progressive reforms she tried to enact in that short time. He’s built out of this a wonderfully gripping, comic and fascinating tale of a cunning woman who took a position of great power and her struggles amidst the reigning corrupt patriarchy of the time.

Camilleri mostly focuses on the perspectives of the male officials of the court rather than Eleanora herself. For the majority of the novel she exists in the background as a spectral figure and is even described as hovering. It’s as if, like the moon, she rises as a powerful presence in the night to illuminate the reigning darkness. The cycle of the moon lasts exactly as long as Eleanora held her position as viceroy – hence the novel’s title “The Revolution of the Moon.” The way in which we read about the lives of these corrupt officials scrambling to shore up their power and maintain their wealth/positions amidst Eleanora’s changes makes much of this novel satirical in tone. It’s a comedy that exposes the arrogance and pettiness of these princes, rich merchants and members of the clergy who are suddenly put into a tailspin as they might finally be persecuted. But, like the best satire, this tone of narration comes from a place of real anger as Camilleri depicts the way these men’s actions exploit the working class and abuse vulnerable women and children.

Elenora-de-Moura.jpg

The plot intriguingly follows the difficulties in persecuting these entitled men and a great tension arises as to whether they will slyly evade punishment before Eleanora is removed from power. It was also interesting learning about how the governing of Sicily functioned at this time of history. There was a complicated arrangement by which the king of Spain ruled over the country, but never had direct involvement in its politics which were all handled by viceroy. That viceroy’s position was also partly controlled by the pope. It meant that Eleanora had to be very careful negotiating between the powers, the influential patriarchy and the will of the Sicilian people. Camilleri depicts the strategies of the opposing sides like a tense game where each is trying to outwit the other. It’s amazing Eleanora was able to enact humanitarian changes and weed out some of the blatantly corrupt as she did in such a relatively short time period! I can’t help thinking her story is somewhat reminiscent of that of Lady Jane Grey who almost a century earlier ruled as Queen of England for only nine days. It’s a sad fact that many progressive women in history who would have made excellent leaders were swiftly removed from office by ruling powers more interested in maintaining the status quo. 

Last month I started reading Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” but I was put off by what felt like an overriding misogynistic humour throughout many of the stories. (I made a whole video here asking how we ought to read problematic classics.) Part of what made me love reading “The Revolution of the Moon” so much was the way Camilleri similarly depicted the cruel reality for many women and working class at this time of history and how their subjugation was tied in with the laws of the nation. I felt Boccaccio made their downtrodden condition into the basis for humour without exploring these characters’ humanity. But Camilleri shows the plight of the disenfranchised and how many were eager for social change. He also makes the arrogant patriarchy into the butt of the joke rather than those who are their victims. It makes this novel into an inspiring, heartrending and thoroughly enjoyable read. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
ManhattanBeach.jpg

I haven’t read any of Jennifer Egan’s fiction before although I’ve always meant to get to her Pulitzer Prize winning “A Visit from the Good Squad” – especially after enjoying so much the varied selection of stories found in the “Best American Short Stories 2014” anthology which Egan guest edited that year. I’ve heard the way Egan handles time in her writing and her method of structuring a story is quite experimental. So it was somewhat surprising to discover that “Manhattan Beach” is constructed like a much more traditional historical novel, but one that is done so powerfully well it reads as a totally innovative and striking take on NYC life during WWII.

The story centres around the life of a young woman named Anna who works in the Naval Shipyard factories and her determination to become a diver working on the submerged hulls of ships and underwater pipelines. Running through the novel is the mystery of what happened to her father Ed who vanished from their family life leaving Anna and her mother Agnes alone to care for her severely physically and mentally disabled younger sister Lydia. She seeks answers about her father’s fate from Dexter Styles, an influential local gangster who, despite his power, finds himself precariously caught between a godfather-like crime boss whose network of schemes he oversees and his respectable high-society father-in-law. Anna and Dexter’s lives intersect and they separately reach a crisis point which requires them to radically alter their lives. It’s an atmospheric tale bouncing between sparkling star-studded gangster-run clubs to the plight of shipwrecked sailors to the murky bottom of Wallabout Bay. It’s as captivating in its portrayal of a working class single woman as it is in the way it shows larger American societal shifts amidst cataclysmic wartime losses.

Egan’s descriptive prose are so engaging. These include evocative observations about life working in a wartime factory, the social order of navy life and the complex workings of the criminal underworld. But there are also subtle portrayals about physical development. For instance, when Ed is an adolescent it’s remarked: “He’d turned twelve, tall and scrawny, fastened together with muscles like leather thongs.” It’s especially poignant when Egan shows Anna’s attempt to form an emotional connection with Lydia who is physically limited in how she can communicate. There are also beautifully profound moments when Anna finally dives underwater and experiences an entirely different world free from the complexity of life on the surface. It’s almost like the readers’ senses are adjusted alongside Anna’s so we can experience a vision of clouded water and the sounds inside her diver’s helmet.

Diver.jpg

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently are the ways prejudice is portrayed in novels and the degree to which we can distinguish a character’s perspective from the authorial voice. There are several scenes where uncomfortable remarks are made about different immigrant communities in NYC, but it was clear that these are mediated through the perspective of Dexter and are bound with this character’s social prejudices. It becomes even more evident that this is the case when Dexter at one point comes to interact with Lydia and he refers to her only as “the cripple.” This shows how he really doesn’t consider her an individual and can’t see past her disability or consider her humanity. It’s all the more tragic when Ed recalls spending time with a young Lydia and the acute shame and disgust he feels towards his daughter’s condition. Egan also writes compellingly about the complex commanding order of shipmates and how traditional social orders amongst different racial groups are scrambled in this unique environment.

Like all great historical fiction, this novel has something to say about the world we’re living in right now. When Dexter’s father-in-law is speculating about America’s position in the global community he surmises “our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.” Today, consumerism has run rampant and personal debt threatens to throw us all into a tailspin again at any moment while stripping the environment down to the bone. It’s interesting to consider the ways in which America’s global influence could have been different after the war if the forces in power were motivated by something other than profit.

“Manhattan Beach” was overall a joy to read and it includes a sassy, free-thinking aunt named Brianne who ultimately became my favourite character.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJennifer Egan
9 CommentsPost a comment

History must be filled with gay love stories whether they were lived in secret or in the open. Although literature and history books are filled with heterosexual love stories, few stories of same-sex couples have been passed down through generations. So I think one of the great opportunities of historical fiction can be to imagine the lives and stories which we have no record of and that have, most probably, been selectively left out of history. Recent novels such as “Hide” by Matthew Griffin and “A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale have meaningfully explored stories of long-term gay relationships and the unique challenges and opportunities they faced in their respective time periods. Sebastian Barry does the same in “Days Without End” with the story of an Irishman named Thomas McNulty who escapes the Irish famine to become a soldier in 19th century America where he meets another handsome soldier named John Cole. But Barry’s inspiration for this novel comes from a specific incident and takes a very unique slant on a historical gay relationship.

I saw Barry give a reading from this novel and he explained how some time ago he noticed that his son was becoming increasingly depressed. One day the son finally confessed to Barry and his wife that he’s gay and he experienced a lot of prejudice for this. So part of what Barry wanted to do in this story was imagine a time and place where his son could have a loving same-sex relationship, build a family and not have to live with the institutionalized prejudices of today’s society. This may seem contradictory when many Western countries have increasingly liberal laws about gay rights, but these values don’t always filter down into smaller communities - especially among teenagers. Barry feels that there were different kinds of opportunities for gay couples in mid-1800s America to live (if not entirely openly) more peacefully without today’s virulent prejudice. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t openly condoned and people faced many other life-threatening challenges during this politically turbulent time as he recounts in detail in the novel. Thomas states how “We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”

This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Barry, but I understand it’s part of a group of books that deal with the McNulty family. It seems like a novel that can stand entirely independent on its own without having read the others. Thomas arrives in America without any connection to his relatives except for the memories of their slowly dying which haunts him later in the book. Here he must forge a future for himself entirely on his own and one of the few work opportunities available to a young man such as himself was to become a soldier in the US military. He’s sent to fight in the bloody battles of the Indian War and then later with the North during the American Civil War. The overwhelming impression of Thomas’ impassioned and vivid accounts of these conflicts is how they are populated by soldiers who are victims of their circumstances; they are fighting in wars not out of ideological convictions but because they have no other choice.

It’s particularly moving how Barry writes about the way Thomas is mindful of “the enemy.” He observes that “There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy; that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.” Like all wars, the armies are filled with young men trapped in the conflicts of history. It’s easier for them to fight without conscience when the opposition is markedly different from them such as the Native Americans they fought against. However, Thomas takes a different perspective when battling against the armies of the South which were also in part made of young immigrants or the sons of immigrants: “It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself. Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest.” Barry really movingly portrays the consciousness of this soldier caught in these battles who is in some fundamental way only killing other versions of himself.

The novel also gives a fascinating perspective on gender and sexuality. Hyper-masculine environments such as army camps and mining towns found improvised ways of providing men with romantic/erotic stimulation. Thomas and John join a sort of cabaret where they entertain audiences of men while dressed in drag. This allows for transformations to occur: “In Mr Noone’s hall you just was what you seemed. Acting ain’t no subterfuge-ing trickery. Strange magic changing things. You thinking along some lines and so you become that new thing.” There’s a kind of liberation in this where people aren’t constricted by traditional identity markers but can become what they want to be. It also provides crucial training for Thomas when later in the story he can utilize passing as a woman to disguise himself. Equally, it’s poignant how Thomas contemplates his own sexuality and feminine qualities where he considers these to be “Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” While the meaning of conflicts being fought in the battlefields remains ambiguous for Thomas, the conviction he and John feel about their desire and love for each other is certain.

History consists of a series of neatly organized dates. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 but you can’t begin to feel the experience by just reading this. One of the most powerful things about Costa Book Awards winner "Days Without End" is the extremely dramatic sense Barry gives to the soldier’s experience who doesn’t know when this conflict will end. For Thomas “World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whisky and cards. No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars.” They are perpetually caught in an uncertain present. Barry writes strikingly about this sense a high-stakes moment with no end to it. The dramatic tension builds throughout the novel as the reader wonders if Thomas will have any future other than this.

Although I loved this novel, I retrospectively had some really strong feelings about the way the publisher presented and promoted it. You can watch my video discussing this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asWSOLCWKII

This isn’t your typical historical novel, but its protagonist Margaret Cavendish wasn’t your typical 17th century English aristocrat either. Attendant to Queen Henrietta Maria and married to William Cavendish, First Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she could have spent her days reclining on a chaise lounge. Instead she engaged with the scientific, literary and philosophical ideas of her day by writing her own essays, plays and unconventional romances. Danielle Dutton has written an inventive fictional portrait of her life by delicately inhabiting this girl who grows up relatively care-free sketching stories and sharing a close relationship to her siblings. But she’s rudely awakened to the hard realities of the world when she experiences the death of family/friends, political conflict and torturous medical treatments that were meant to help her conceive after marrying. Gradually she’s inspired to make her thoughts and feelings known by publishing books which invigorate and challenge society. Showing a radical determination she declares: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone.” In pursuing her writing and ambition to be famous, this woman with a penchant for couture fashion achieved a level of notoriety and lasting influence on disparate groups of people over time – everyone from Virginia Woolf to Siri Hustvedt to animal rights activists.

Dutton tells Margaret’s story using a spare, impressionist style of narrative which recounts parties she attends and large societal shifts around her. While this feels at times confusing as it jolts through the ballrooms of history, it builds a meaningful feeling for Margaret’s developing sensibility and unique view of the world. She feels curiously estranged from her circumstances and seems to half live in a counter-world of her own creation (The Blazing World). Through depictions of her meditative writing process and desire for fame, Dutton shows how she strives to connect with the actual world around her. That she practically demands that everyone pay attention comes across as both brave and arrogant. However, the author clues the reader into the quiet centre of Margaret’s life through her distinct style of writing. So, even as the story rapidly progressed through the years, I felt wholly sympathetic for her struggle to be both seen and heard. This culminates in an emotional scene where Margaret became the first woman to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London.

Margaret Cavendish who was branded by the public "Mad Madge"

Margaret Cavendish who was branded by the public "Mad Madge"

It’s fascinating how Margaret’s relationship with William Cavendish is depicted. He’s a man who was thirty years her senior and she inhabited an unsteady social/familial position being his second wife. Although he’s renowned as a man of high social standing and wealth, she discovers he secretly struggles with enormous money problems. This obviously creates challenges for them, but he’s amenable to her desires and fancies. William supports her writing but he’s nonetheless susceptible to the misogynistic prejudices of the time. It makes it difficult for Margaret to reconcile her feelings about him so that sometimes “He appeared to her a stranger wearing her husband’s skin.” It could have been easy to depict William as a certain type of villainous character, but I admire how Dutton treats him with the same level of empathy as she does her charismatic heroine.

It’s interesting to think about this book in comparison to Alexander Chee’s recent novel “Queen of the Night” which also depicts a flamboyant society woman from history (the Comtesse de Castiglione). Both meditate on the degree to which cutting-edge fashion and an obsession with self-image present different aspects of these women’s unique personalities. However, where Chee is dramatically expansive and lingers on sumptuous detail, Dutton is intensely concentrated. Overall, “Margaret the First” is a lively creation which crystallizes the lavish interior reality of a historical woman and the challenges she faced to make her ideas known amidst stultifying social conventions. It spoke to me strongly about the tension between our inner and outer world, the challenge of bridging the gap between the two and the slow burning effects of ambition. At one point she ardently contemplates “I have made a world, she thinks, for which nobody should blame me.” This feels to me like an incredibly liberating statement because it radically declares the validity of our individual perspectives and private being apart from other people’s expectations and judgement. “Margaret the First” is an inspiring, joyous novel that pays tribute to the complexities of our interior lives.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanielle Dutton
Lonely-Sea-and-Sky-.jpg

When reading novels about WWII you are usually shown the perspective of women and men from countries involved in fighting the conflict. However, I haven’t come across many representations of countries that maintained neutrality. So I’ve found it fascinating reading two recent novels which do this: Rose Tremain’s novel “The Gustav Sonata” which portrays the long term consequences for a Swiss officer and his family drawn into a serious moral conflict and Dermot Bolger’s new novel “The Lonely Sea and Sky” which is based on a historical incident where a small Irish ship chose to save 168 shipwrecked German sailors in 1943. The question of whether to save these men from drowning is more difficult than it first appears: some German forces sank Irish vessels (frequently as target practice) despite their nation's neutrality and there was also the risk that the Germans might take control of the Irish ship once they had boarded and outnumbered the seamen. Their country might have been neutral, but they lived in a world at war. The novel is narrated from the perspective of a 14 year old Irish boy named Jack who joins the crew of a shipping vessel called the Kerlogue. He needs to mature quickly for a hard life at sea and he's confronted with many moral dilemmas posed in this dramatic journey. Bolger creates a personal, heartrending and atmospheric tale of the lives of these Irish sailors during a period of great international conflict.

Jack recently lost his father who was also a sailor; he never returned from his last ill-fated expedition. It’s left his mother and multiple siblings on the brink of starvation. Even though he is technically underage, he finagles his way into joining this shipping vessel’s crew. Jack’s discovery process along his first voyage at sea has many layers. The difficulty of sailing is vividly created as Jack becomes accustomed to seasickness, hard duties and navigating the social structure of a tightly compressed group of men. There is a hierarchy of rank which must be respected and sailors must tread carefully to not enquire too much about any sailor’s problems – such as a particularly troubled man named Mr Walton. Rather than neglecting each other’s emotional wellbeing this is seen as a sign of respect. Since some of the crew sailed with his father, it’s touching how Jack discovers parts of what was his father’s daily life and character which were previously unknown to him.

Jack is also introduced to foreign cultures and attitudes in the Welsh and Portuguese ports where they stop for cargo or customs inspections. He’s led a very sheltered existence up until this point in his small Irish town of Wexford which was “dominated not by fear of an all-seeing God but by a terror that neighbours might think you lacked respectability.” Out in the world he’s free to make his own choices away from the prying eyes of familiars. He has a particularly striking encounter in Lisbon with a Czechoslovakian Jewish woman named Katerina who has eluded capture and has improvised a difficult new life for herself. Bolger writes with great sensitivity and detail about Katerina’s complex psychology and the conflict and hardship she faces. Her presence in Jack's mind also gives Jack more complex opinions when faced with the moral challenges ahead.

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

The novel shows that rather than existing wholly outside the conflict, “neutral” nations were forced to make compromises or concede in certain respects to German or Allied forces. The cook who Jack works for on the ship remarks at one point “Ireland is the only neutral country gaining nothing from this war,’ he said. ‘The Portuguese happily trade with the British and, at the same time, they flog tungsten to the Nazis to armour-plate their tanks. The Swedes supply the Germans with iron ore and Swiss banks can barely close their vaults, they’re so crammed with looted Nazi gold.” Although these other nations clearly suffered hardships and strains during the war which was detrimental to their economies and people, it's interesting to think about the precarious position of neutrality and how some people might have used the war to their benefit. It's also interesting to learn how the IRA briefly considered siding with Hitler's Germany in the hopes of creating a re-united Irish nation with the north.

More than any political arguments or issues of allegiance, what comes through in the novel is the sailors' essential humanity. They see themselves in a kind of brotherhood with any man who sails at sea because the living is so difficult and fraught with danger. Faced with drowning men, they couldn't allow sailors to perish whether they were soldiers that posed a threat to them or not. The consequences of rescuing them may have impacted the crew of the Kerlogue negatively: it ostracised them from the British as their priority was getting them to the nearest port in Ireland for medical attention and from the Germans for not returning their men. It also led the crew to losing their cargo and any profit they'd make from their long journey – something they could ill afford to do while living on the brink of poverty. However, their action has assured these brave sailors a heroic place in history as having done the right thing in an extremely difficult time. Dermot Bolger has done them justice in producing such a finely crafted and extremely readable tale which brings their story to life.

I had the pleasure of hearing Rose Tremain read from her new novel “The Gustav Sonata” at a special event at Waterstones Piccadilly several weeks ago. The section she read and her writing in general has a wonderful way of drawing you into the lives/experiences of her characters so I was eager to read this new novel – especially since I loved her previous book “The American Lover” which is a collection of short stories. It’s admirable how Tremain never sticks to writing about any one particular genre, subject matter, time period or area of the world. Her books span from historical novels set in the court of Charles II to the mid-1800s New Zealand gold rush to stories about migrant works in modern London. “The Gustav Sonata” primarily takes place in pre and post-WWII Switzerland (with a later leap to the more recent past). Given its location it gives an interesting slant on the war and the meaning of neutrality by focusing on the lives of two different families affected by the greater conflict. It’s a deeply immersive story about loyalty during times of conflict, ambition, betrayal and family strife that made me stay up late at night longing to read more.

The novel centres around a Swiss boy named Gustav whose single mother Emilie struggles to make ends meet while working in an Emmental cheese factory. His father Erich died at an early age, but was once an assistant police chief during the tense period in the lead up to the war. In 1948, a six year old Gustav befriends a new Jewish boy named Anton at school. Emilie resents her son’s companion because she blames their diminished circumstances on the influx of Jewish refugees. It’s not difficult to see how these embittered isolationist feelings still resonate today in current political opinions. Despite his mother’s objections, Gustav and Anton form a special bond which continues throughout their lives. Questions raised about how Emilie got to this difficult point are answered in the second part of the novel which moves back to 1937 to recount her tumultuous marriage with Erich. The third part of the book then skips far forward to the end of the 20th century to show how dilemmas about his family and his country’s past still resonate for Gustav in his later years.

Tremain skilfully raises many difficult questions about what happens to political allegiance, social responsibility and moral conscience when put under the pressure of warfare. Being only a boy during WWII, it takes Gustav a lifetime to untangle the truth and meaning of the decisions his parents and their friends took at the time. It’s remarked how “Europe is at war. Fairness is now becoming a word without meaning.” There is no balanced view when embroiled in the fear and terror of this conflict. When looking at specific actions from a historical point of view, it’s easy to judge what was right and wrong. But when facing conflict in the present when you’re aware of different negative outcomes no matter what decision you make, the choice is not always so clear. By moving backwards and forwards in time through different parts of this novel, Tremain artfully shows the true nightmarish dilemma faced by ordinary people caught in a large-scale battle.

I also greatly appreciated the dynamic view of transforming sexuality represented in the personal lives of her characters. Throughout their entire adult lives all of the characters find their desire changes which also transforms their points of view. Lottie, the wife of Erich’s friend Roger, is a particularly fascinating character who finds herself drawn to the forbidden and struggles to express her sexuality within the narrow confines of society. Also, there’s a particularly memorable and disturbing section where a mentally-disturbed young neighbour attempts to sexually abuse Gustav when he’s still a boy. Although this character and his actions are reprehensible, he is still treated in a balanced way as he is evidently a victim of shock treatment and other damaging medical therapies of the time. There is also an innocently intimate scene between Gustav and Anton as boys which is so delicately portrayed. Tremain has a tremendous ability for writing intelligently and sensitively about the ever-evolving sexuality of a broad range of characters.

A subterranean melody plays throughout Gustav’s journey in this novel. As a child Anton is an aspiring pianist and his desire for fame hangs upon him throughout his life despite his crippling performance anxiety. He frequently plays Beethoven and other composers to Gustav. It’s extraordinary how I started to almost hear this music playing as I progressed in reading the novel. Like great works of music, “The Gustav Sonata” has a subtly transformative effect saying what can’t be overtly stated by using a juxtaposition of characters, place and images. It also made me salivate to try Emilie’s favourite desert Nusstorte! This is an exceptionally beautiful and accomplished novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRose Tremain
7 CommentsPost a comment

I enjoy it when novels clue me into fascinating new facts about the past. Shirley Barrett’s novel “Rush Oh!” takes place in the rural township of Eden in Australia. From a future point, Mary recounts the story of whaling season in the year 1908 so that her nephew can have a feeling for this defunct way of life. Her father George Davidson is a local hero as he leads whaling expeditions along the coast whenever they are spotted during their migration. What’s so interesting is that Barrett bases her story on a real arrangement where teams of men worked in conjunction with a group of local Killer whales. The Killer whales corralled blue, humpback or right whales into the bay so that the whalers could harpoon them. The Killer whales got to feast on the meat and the whalers took the rest of the carcass to use the blubber and bones. It’s a curious pact between men and beasts for a common cause. Barrett has brought to life a story about this rare arrangement which is filled with adventure and romance.

Mary is the eldest daughter of the Davidson family. She writes about the year 1908 because it was a time when the family’s fortunes began to turn since whales had become scarce. It’s also personally significant for her as that is when a strange former minister named John Beck comes to join the whale party and steals her heart. Having lost her mother many years ago it falls to her to organize the household and look after her younger brothers and sisters. Although I found the tales of the hunts for whales and details about the time period really engaging, something about Mary’s narration irritated me. She has what feels like a faux naivety and innocence that clashes with the brutal world around her. Her social awkwardness comes across as enduring and she has moments where she shows herself to be strong and capable. However, overall I found her mourning for her lost mother and romantic stirrings for John to be unconvincing. 

Skeleton of Killer whale that aided whalers in their hunts at the Eden Killer Whale Museum

Skeleton of Killer whale that aided whalers in their hunts at the Eden Killer Whale Museum

It’s interesting how Mary turns the narrative into a kind of scrapbook including drawings she made of the whales and people involved as well as articles from the local newspaper. This combined with descriptions of the meagre food they ate and the arduous hunts for whales really brought the story to life. It's fascinating how the primary Killer whale Tom becomes a character himself with a distinct personality. There are also several excellent comic scenes in the novel including when Beck tries to deliver a sermon to whalers who won’t stop interrupting him or a gruesome tale of Uncle Aleck who submerges himself in a whale carcass as a cure for his rheumatism. But the narrative comes across as inconsistent when it follows the thoughts and feelings of men on the whaling expeditions which Mary wasn’t a part of and couldn’t have had any real knowledge of. She admits in certain scenes that “To be honest, I am not entirely sure if these were their exact words – I am reconstructing this conversation from an account given to me later by John Beck.” This a cumbersome way of getting around the fact that Barrett can’t show as much of the tale as she’d probably like to because the story is stuck in Mary’s perspective.

I couldn’t help comparing this novel to another book I read recently named “Elemental” which shares some striking parallels. “Elemental” is also the first person account of a woman recording her life’s story of working by the sea during the early 20th century. She’s recording this for a family member and the second half even takes place in Australia. Yet, there is tenderness and charm in the voice of “Elemental”’s narrator which I felt was lacking in Mary’s account in “Rush Oh!” I did enjoy the historical period and setting for this novel, but I wish Shirley Barrett had found another way or created a different character to get into the story.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesShirley Barrett
3 CommentsPost a comment

“Elemental” is a sweeping historical novel that spans seventy years, multiple generations and two continents. But the story is primarily concentrated through the warmly-engaging and Scottish voice of Meggie Tulloch. It’s the early 1970s and, late in her life, Meggie realizes she has little time left so decides to write down the story of her early years for her granddaughter Laura. However, some things are difficult to tell, particularly family secrets that have been buried for many decades. But she feels it’s vitally important for her granddaughter to understand where she came from. She explains “The story of where you come from is real, as real as memory can ever be, and not so easy as fairytales.” Her tale shows the ways in which we inherit different aspects of our ancestors’ lives - not only their physical traits and characteristics of their personality but the hard battle for survival. 

Tunnelling back through time Meggie reveals how she was once a red-headed hearty daughter of a rural traditional fishing family in the early 1900s. Her adolescent life is evoked with vivid detail so much that you can feel the tremendous claustrophobia of living in a small village governed by superstition with a tyrannical grandfather and sparse resources. Despite showing great intelligence and finding an early passion for books (including the poetry of Emily Dickinson), it was difficult for a girl at that time to find any independence or further education. So she becomes a herring girl and builds a life of her own through brutally hard labour and determination by working alongside groups of women who gutted the fish which were brought in by men who sailed the seas around the British Isles.

There is something so beautifully tender about the way Meggie reveals the past by writing in a familiar voice directly to her granddaughter who she affectionately calls “lambsie”. Emotion wells to the surface in the process of recounting a past of poverty, lost loved ones, first romance, wartime hardship and the nervous excitement of eventually setting off from Scotland for a new life in Australia. The directness of communication makes it all feel so present and real as if she’s speaking in front of you. Inevitably, she begins to muse upon the nature of memory itself. How random it can seem what remains and what doesn’t so that she thinks “how strange it is that sometimes we manage almost to erase the memory of pain to spare ourselves, and other times it’s as though we’ve taken to it with a polishing cloth.” It seems to me true how some hurt we’ve experienced in our lives is pushed away and forgotten while other pain still feels so immediate.

One of the most effective things about this novel is the way relationships are shown to change over time. Initially Meggie idolizes her older sister Kitty and eagerly follows in her footsteps living the life of a herring girl. But gradually the relationship changes as her sister encounters challenges and hardships. Equally, the initial tender love affair she has with her husband Magnus morphs into something so different in the many years that pass and after he’s drawn into war. She describes how “Each day it grew, the pile of things we could not say to each other because too much time had passed now.” It seems a sad fact of relationships – not just with lovers, but friends as well – that the longer things are left unsaid the greater the silence and distance grows between people. It makes Meggie’s magnanimous gesture of earnestly trying to communicate her life story to a granddaughter who she’s lost touch with all the more heart-warming.

Herring girls of the early 20th century

Herring girls of the early 20th century

Late in the novel, the narrative abruptly shifts from Meggie to her granddaughter Laura and Laura’s daughter-in-law. The stories of their immediate problems seem disorientating and confusing at first after spending so many pages in Meggie’s confident voice, but gradually their added stories take on greater significance which pushes the novel into new realms and draws the later generations back to Meggie’s beginnings.

Growing up in coastal Maine, a lot of the first paid work I did was at a seafood restaurant where I had to wade through piles of seafood, preparing it and burning my hands over fryer vats cooking it. Of course, my pain was nowhere close to the degree which Meggie suffered working as a herring girl. But, even though the location was different, I felt I could really visualize, smell and even taste the coastal life that Amanda Curtain so skilfully renders in believable detail. It feels like “Elemental” belongs in the tradition of great Victorian literature like Thomas Hardy. Yet there is something so refreshing in the voice and sensibility of the narrator which feels relevant and new even though she belongs to another century.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmanda Curtin