historical fiction

The Orphan of Salt Winds, by Elizabeth Brooks

Somewhere on an English marsh near the southern coast, an old woman is preparing for the end of her life. From our very first introduction to Virginia Wrathmell as she is waiting for a sign that its time to make her exit, the protagonist of Elizabeth Brooks’ disturbing The Orphan of Salt Winds*, we know that something is very wrong and that it has been wrong for a very long time. The rest of the book quickly unspools to reveal what Virginia has been hiding for more than eighty years and why she thinks she needs to walk out into the marsh for the last time. 

Virginia was an unhappy orphan when she was adopted by Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. Her good luck at been adopted is severely tempered by her bad luck to be scooped up by a couple who think that maybe having a child will fix their relationship. Virginia, at age 11, is trust into the middle of an emotionally fraught household. The couple snipe at each other when they think Virginia can’t hear them. Still, Virginia bonds with Clem over the local birds and the marsh surrounding their house, Salt Winds. 

If it hadn’t been for the German crash-landing out in the marsh and Virgina’s emotional immaturity, The Orphan of Salt Wind would have been a very different—possibly less harrowing—story. Without the crash and with less of Virginia’s terrible mistakes, Virginia and her adopted mother still have to contend with the lecherous Mr. Deering. Deering was a one-time suitor for Lorna and it appears that he still hasn’t gotten the message that Lorna can’t stand the sight of him. Deering is the kind of man that women fear. He’s so reasonable all the time that it’s hard for Lorna and Virginia to get him out of their lives. After all, how can they object to a nice picnic or his insistence that they welcome him when he drops by for a friendly cuppa? Even the little touches could be explained away. The ones that can’t weren’t witnessed by anyone. Who’s to say they even happened? Before long, I dreaded Deering’s arrivals at Salt Winds almost as much as Virginia or Lorna. Throwing a German pilot and an 11-year-old who has no idea how to deal with adults and it isn’t long before everything heads straight to emotional hell.

The Orphan of Salt Winds moves back and forth in time, from the early 1940s to 2015. We’re tangled up in Virginia’s past and present, drawn in to her twisted desire for a bit of revenge before she makes her exit from the world and into her long suppressed memories. Tangle is the right word for this book. It’s messily constructed and I don’t think that all of it makes sense. The ending is also a bit rushed. That said, this book is pitch perfect when it comes to harassment from a man who has plausible deniability (and possibly sociopathy) on his side.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 15 January 2019.

For some reason, this book has a different title for the US edition. It’s original (and I think better) title is Call of the Curlew.

historical fiction · mystery · review

Innocents to the Slaughter, by H.P. Maskew

In their first outing, journalist Ambrose Hudson and Edgar Lawes tackled a corrupt workhouse. In this novel, set in 1839, Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes take on new evils of the Victorian era. This time, it’s child labor and baby farming. Child labor at this time was illegal. Children under the age of nine could not be employed in factories, mines, etc. But because poverty is endemic and large employers want every scrap of profit, there are a lot of blind eyes turned to the practice. On the other hand, baby farming is perfectly legal. There’s no law against paying someone to care for one’s child. But again, poverty tends to relax some people’s inhibitions and it isn’t long before the practice is turned to brutal profit. The two crusaders certainly have their plates full in this episode—especially when an old enemy turns up. 

At the beginning of Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes seem a bit bored with their day jobs. Hudson is eager to go undercover again to dig up material for a new exposé. Lawes isn’t far behind in his enthusiasm to set aside running his estate for a bit and return to being a detective. A letter sent from the north of England to Hudson—one detailing the abusive practices at a textile mill and hinting at possible infanticide—is like a bugle call for the pair. 

Unfortunately for us readers, Hudson and Lawes take a frustratingly long time answering that bugle call. Long chapters are devoted to planning. We are treated to descriptions of travel routes, cover stories, and the like and it’s only in the last third of the novel that things start to get exciting. I suppose, for a journalist and a lawyer, all that groundwork is necessary. After all, Lawes needs to be able to make a case in court if there really is something illegal afoot and Hudson needs to be scrupulous in his research if he wants to affect real change. There were several places were I skimmed over the dialogue because I was getting a bit bored. 

Even though this book isn’t a barnstormer from cover to cover, Innocents to the Slaughter does sterling work in re-creating the grinding poverty of the Industrial Revolution. The descriptions of miserable, cold, dangerous labor; degrading housing conditions; and despair of the working poor seem to come straight from the pen of Henry Mayhew himself. Like Hudson, I was outraged on the behalf of the people who have no recourse to unfair working conditions and no way out of their terrible situations. I was so relieved when Hudson and Lawes were able to get a little bit of justice for the wronged, even if they did have to pay a dreadful (really, really dreadful) price for it. 

Innocents to the Slaughter is, barring some of its slower passages, a rewarding read for people who want historical fiction that brings a time and a place back to life. Maskew is a deft hand at doling out research in such a way that it doesn’t feel like attending a seminar, even if she could have moved things along a little faster than she did. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Hangman’s Secret, by Laura Joh Rowland

I arrived late to the party for this series. The Hangman’s Secret is the third book in Laura Joh Roland’s Victorian Mysteries series. Fortunately, there are enough callbacks and exposition for me to feel like I wasn’t missing too much to understand the characters in this fair to middling mystery. There are problems with the writing in this book that almost put me off (discussed below), but the mystery itself was interesting enough that I just had to keep reading. 

Protagonist Sarah Bain, with her partners Lord Hugh Staunton and the very-much-ragtag Mick O’Reilly have become semi-official investigators by The Hangman’s Secret. Sarah has been hired to provide crime scene photos for the ambitious owner of a London newspaper, Sir Gerald. Hugh helps as bodyguard and investigative partner, while Mick keeps his ear to the street to sniff out gristly murders and useful information. Neither Sarah nor Hugh is very happy with this arrangement, but it does pay the bills. As The Hangman’s Secret kicks off, Sarah and Hugh have been summoned to the particularly messy death of a local pub owner and hangman. It might look like the man hanged himself if not for the fact that everyone knows that he was a consummate professional who would never have botched his own hanging. (The details of the botching are definitely not for the squeamish.) 

Sarah et al. are not allowed to treat the hangman’s death as just another job. Sir Gerald, in a fit of inspiration, declares that Sarah’s team and his new hire, a sexist reporter, will solve the mystery before the Metropolitan police. Sarah doesn’t want to be a detective. Her policeman lover definitely doesn’t want her to be a detective, either. But when the man with the purse strings gives an order, it has to be obeyed. Fortunately for Sarah and her partners, the people she interviews are generally willing to cough up all kinds of useful information. The ones who don’t go straight to the top of the list of suspects. 

The way witnesses repeatedly give up information so easily was one of the things that bothered me about this book. It didn’t seem realistic to me the way that characters in late 1880s London would trust Sarah or that they all had such good memories. I was also bothered by Rowland’s missteps in the dialogue. There are a lot of too-modern phrases and sentences that a British English speaker would not say. The wrong notes irritated me. I stuck around because I had my own theories about what happened that I wanted to see confirmed. If nothing else, after reading the complicated Vita NostraThe Hangman’s Secret was a chance for my brain to cool off. 

I’m not interested enough to go back and read the first two books in the series and I doubt I will be keeping an eye out for future entries. I feel let down by The Hangman’s Secret because I know Rowland is a better writer and researcher than this. I really enjoyed her Sano Ichiro series, which is set in Shogunate Japan. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

historical fiction · literary fiction · metafiction · review

The Brahmadells, by Jóanes Nielsen

Imagine a triangle with its points in Iceland, Norway, and Scotland, skewed a little closer to Scotland than the other two countries. That’s roughly were the Faroe Islands at located. The Faroes, a long time colony of Denmark and a place few have heard of, is the setting for Jóanes Nielsen’s The Brahmadells (translated by Kerri A. Pierce), a metafictional family historical saga that runs from the 1840s to the early 1990s. The family stories that make up the bulk of the novel support a variety of tangents that attempt to explicate the Faroese character. The people in this novel eat partially decomposed meat, live dangerous lives, believe strange things, and sometimes fall prey to their worst impulses.

In the 1990s, writer Eigil Tvibur (the descendant of a Norwegian soldier who was garrisoned in Tórshavn before becoming a landowner), feels that his life is falling apart. His lover has definitively left him. His political career has imploded. He is angry all the time. And his house might be haunted. I might have felt more sympathy for him if it hadn’t been for the terrible, violent rage that he inherited from that Norwegian ancestor. Eigil’s anger and sense of entitlement leads him into a series of awful mistakes. Thankfully, only the beginning and end of The Brahmadells focuses on Eigil. The rest is about the twinned history of the Tvibur family and the Brahmadella family. 

I had a lot more sympathy for Tóvó í Giel. Tóvó is a scion of a family nicknamed the Brahamadellas because of their supposedly otherworldly knowledge. We met Tóvó during a terrible measles epidemic when he’s just a boy. Because the boy’s plight (a lot of his family members succumb to the disease), a prominent doctor takes the boy under his wing. Tóvó ends up traveling across a good chunk of the Faroe Islands before heading out to sea to see the world. Eventually, he returns home and inherits a house from the man who turns out to be Eigil’s Norwegian forefather. 

The oldest neighborhood in Tórshavn. (Image by Vincent van Zeijst, via Wikicommons)

Sadly, we don’t stay with Tóvó or even get much inside this character’s head. Instead, we are treated to an often bewildering montage of Faroese history. We are treated to chapters about Danish exploitation and oppression, Faroese literature, weather, cuisine, coal mining, a failed attempt at creating a union, and more. I suspect these tangents are part of the reason why this novel was chosen to be translated into English; it offers a full meal of Faroe-ish fare, rather than just a taste. The tangents definitely explain the novel’s comparisons to Moby-Dick. Unfortunately, the book jumps around so much that it’s hard to tell who we need to focus on, what’s important to remember, and what the point of it all is. The Brahmadells also suffers from what are either typos or translation errors, or possibly both, that just put me off the book even more. This book is a shaggy dog and while I got to mentally travel to a place that fascinates me, I had a tour guide that ruined the experience with his bluster and frightening anger.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

The Master Butchers Singing Club, by Louise Erdrich

While most of Louise Erdrich’s works center on Midwestern Ojibwe life, The Master Butchers Singing Club takes its inspiration from the author’s German ancestors (one of whom is pictured on the hardcover edition pictured at left). This immigrant story features a wide cast of characters who are mostly neither good or bad; they’re mistake-prone humans more than anything else. As we watch the foibles of the residents of Argus, North Dakota and the Waldvogel family, the story touches on balancing, love, obligation, homosexuality, and many other topics as it meanders its way from the early 1920s to World War II. 

This novel begins in the aftermath of World War I. Fidelis Waldvogel was a sniper during the war, though he has resolutely turned his back on his war experiences with one big exception: he proposes to the pregnant fiancé of his best friend during the war due to his strong, Teutonic sense of obligation. But Germany after World War I is a hard place for a young family to get ahead, so Fidelis packs a suitcase full of his family’s finest sausages and heads off to America. Fidelis is a major characters of the novel, but he eventually cedes narrative duties to Delphine Watzka. Delphine is the daughter of the town drunk. She tries to live this down first by escaping (she works for a long time as a human table in a balancing act), then by being one of the hardest working women in Argus.

What struck me most about The Master Butchers Singing Club was the way that Delphine and Fidelis balance their desires and their obligations. Early in the novel, while Delphine was still working the side show circuit, Erdrich describes the act in great detail. While Delphine’s partner would balance himself on a series of stacked chairs, Delphine would hold everything up so that the act could continue. She never really stops trying to balance things. Delphine tries to keep her alcoholic father out of jail and mostly sober, while helping the Waldvogels in their butcher shop and maintaining an unfulfilling relationship in spite of her desire for children. Fidelis has his own balancing act, as he tries to keep the shop going, raise his sons, deal with his awful sister, and so on. Watching these acts feels as tense as watching Delphine’s act. We wait for the metaphorical chairs to fall. They have to fall. It seems impossible that they can stay up in the air. Sometimes, I wanted those chairs to fall so that Delphine and Fidelis could be free to do what they wanted for a change. 

Though Erdrich offers some very interesting and gruesome subplots to keep things interesting, the bulk of the novel simply follows Fidelis and Delphine for twenty some odd years. (The subplots revolve around a family that died while trapped in Delphine’s father’s cellar and the sheriff’s obnoxious failed courtship of Delphine’s best friend.) Readers of domestic literary fiction may enjoy this, as will readers who enjoy in-depth character studies. Readers who want more action in the plot or who get frustrated with characters who seem incapable of choosing to seek out their own happiness should stay away. Being a member of the later camp, The Master Butchers Signing Club is one of my least favorite Erdrich novels. Very little about this book satisfied me, possible because of Erdrich’s faithfulness to her ancestors’ story to the detriment of the novel. Now that I’ve finished, I wish she had decided to seize the opportunity to rewrite history and give us a happier ending.

historical fiction · review

Regeneration, by Pat Barker

Early in Pat Barker’s moving, thoughtful novel Regeneration, Dr. William Rivers reflects on an experiment he assisted with when he was a much younger man. He and a colleague, Henry Head, wanted to know whether it was possible for severed nerves to regrow. Head cut a nerve in his arm and Rivers would probe the arm to see if sensation had been restored. Head suffered agonies during the tests, but they kept going because of the medical possibilities. Rivers thinks about this after a particularly grueling session with one of the men he is treating for war shock (now called post-traumatic stress disorder). Rivers has to probe, with questions, at these men’s worst memories and anxieties, in an effort to make them “fit for duty” so that they can return to the trenches of France. Rivers has to hurt them to heal them—a terrible thing for a sensitive man. 

In addition to William H.R. RiversRegeneration prominently features other actual historic figures. One of Rivers’ actual patients and one of the main characters of this book is poet Siegfried Sassoon. Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, two other writers and British soldiers, also make significant appearances. In 1917, Sassoon began protesting the war, even as he was a soldier and an officer in the trenches. His protest centered on his belief that the war was being prolonged and could, if the politicians got their act together, be ended almost immediately. But his protests, culminating in a declaration that was eventually read before Parliament, lead to Sassoon being sent to Rivers in Scotland. Graves pulled stings to keep his friend from being court-martialed. Sassoon and Rivers consequently end up in the absurd position of a psychiatrist having to read a sane man in order to convince that sane man to return to the insanity of war. 

Drs. Head and Rivers in 1903, experimenting with nerve regeneration. (Image by Cambridge University Department of Psychology, via Wikicommons)

The most interesting parts of Regeneration, for me, were all the moments when Rivers* takes a step back to think about what is variously called war neurosis, malingering, shell shock, or war shock. For most, it’s a kind of weakness. Rivers is faced not just with his patients’ traumas, but also their resistance to psychotherapy. These men feel so much shame for what they see as their inability to cope with war, which many of them believe is their duty to find. World War I was so traumatic, for so many reasons, that in hindsight I can only feel sympathy for these men. They were put in unbearable, toxic, dangerous, and absurd situations and told they were cowards if they broke down under the strain. Not only that, Rivers feels a certain amount of peer pressure from his colleagues. Some are of Rivers’ mind and treat the soldiers as though their mental injuries were as serious (or more so) than physical injuries. Others, like Dr. Lewis Yealland, “treat” soldiers with something that is indistinguishable from torture. Yealland would administer electric shocks to men suffering from mutism or other physical symptoms of mental trauma until they started speaking or moving normally again. 

Like another recent read of mine, The Verdun Affair, this novel is about the aftermath of one of the worst conflicts humans have ever devised for themselves. Regeneration looks deeply at the mental aftermath and all the complicated thoughts it engenders, the lack of knowledge on the part of the psychologists about what they were up against, and the big question of the ethics of fighting the war at all. Rivers and Sassoon both wrestle with this question. Sassoon struggles with his guilt at being safe in Scotland while others fight on, and with his anger at the people in charge for keeping the fight going. Rivers has what I think is a worse dilemma: working to heal men only so that they can go back to a war that has devolved into little more than a meat grinder. Is it ethical to help men only to send them out to possibly die? 

I really enjoyed Regeneration. Even though the content is rough, especially since it’s based on actual history and medicine, I felt like I learned a lot from reading it. We’ve learned a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder in recent decades, mostly since the Vietnam War. Looking back further, it’s impossible not to see that the same disorder emerged in other conflicts. There was so much suffering and mental anguish in the decades (centuries) before that before we started taking a hard look at what it means to draft a man; order him to take a weapon and try to kill another human being before that human being can kill him; all while running the risk of being killed by gas, friendly fire, illness, etc.; and keep him there until he’s dead or so damaged that he can’t keep trying to kill other human beings. Sassoon, though he signed on in good faith that his government knew what it was doing when it went to war, had to speak up against its prolongation. Anything else would have been madness. 

* I looked up Rivers’ 1918 paper in The Lancet, about the mental symptoms of war trauma, in a fit of curiosity. 

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

One Part Woman, by Perumal Murugan

For a long time and in many places (and still is in many places) the role of a woman is to produce children, heirs. This is certainly the case in rural Tamil Nadu, some time after 1945, in Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (translated by Aniruddhan Tasedevan). Farmer Kali has been married for twelve years to Ponna, but they don’t have any children. Everyone around them, from relatives to neighbors to priests, has advice, pity, theories, and/or scorn for the childless couple. Kali is content, however, and deeply in love with his wife. Ponna, on the other hand, is tormented by her inability to conceive. 

One Part Woman takes place in the months leading up to the chariot festival. On the 18th day of the festival, women who hope to conceive have the option of having sex with a man not their husband. The man “appears as god” to the woman and everything is religiously and socially sanctioned. Emotionally, however, things are not so permissible for a couple as in love as Kali and Ponna. Part of the novel reveals how Kali and Ponna’s mothers and Ponna’s brothers badger the couple to let Ponna take part in the 18th day festivities (for lack of a better word). Ponna is just willing, but Kali is adamantly against it. 

The rest of the novel drifts back and forth in time. We see the couple’s history and learn that it was love at first sight for Kali. We also see the depths of Ponna’s despair at her possible infertility. In this society, brides are expected to be pregnant within a year. Adoption, we learn, is not an option either due to caste issues, among other prejudices. IVF has either not been invented yet (I think this novel is set in the late 1940s) or, if it has, it’s not available for a farmer in rural southern India. The longer Ponna goes without conceiving, the more harassment she gets from everyone around them. When the couple saves money instead of spending it, everyone asks who they can be saving the money for if they don’t have children. When the couple offers to help on their neighbors’ farms, Ponna is rejected or blamed because of belief that a barren woman’s touch brings blight. Ponna might have been able to weather this as Kali does, except for the fact that she very much wants to have children. Every scene made me feel for Ponna.

Portia trees are frequently mentioned in this novel. (Image by Dinesh Valke, via Wikicommons)

I also felt a growing sympathy for Kali. He just wants his wife to be happy and for people to leave them alone. But it seems, as though the only thing that might make Ponna happy is a child. I suspect, from hints in the novel, that Kali is the infertile one. This realization hit me as particularly ironic given that Kali seems to be able to make anything grow. Early in One Part Woman, Kali talks about a portia tree he managed to grow in the courtyard of his in-laws’ house from a mere stalk. Everything on Kali’s farm thrives. The livestock are fat, healthy, and fertile. The crops are abundant. Kali even managed to grow plants for flowers for Ponna’s hair. He just can’t seem to have a child of his own. 

One Part Woman is a blend of love and sorrow. All of its emotional highs and lows are conveyed in Tasedevan’s almost hypnotic translation of Murugan’s Tamil. The novel reads like a story told by an old relative, with only a few clues as to time and place. This story feels as though it could have taken place anywhere in southern India, at any time in the first half of the twentieth century. The lack of concrete detail is not a problem. Rather, it makes Kali and Ponna’s struggle with expectations and infertility one that could apply to any couple in a society that deeply believes that women should bear children and that women can only be complete if they are mothers.