historical fiction · literary fiction · review

The Life of an Unknown Man, by Andreï Makine

While there are no right answers to the question: what are stories for? There are some answers that are more correct than others. In Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (smoothly translated by Geoffrey Strachan), exiled dissident, author Shutov has an existential crisis about what stories and literatures should be. Are they supposed to be beautiful? Are they supposed to ironically point out the foibles of society? Should they cater to the tastes of the reading public? Are they supposed to document the human condition? What should an author write in the middle of all of these competing questions?

At the beginning of The Life of an Unknown Man, Shutov has very firm ideas about what stories and literature should be. His girlfriend, Léa, who has just dumped him (rightly, I think) for being a pretentious ass about his opinions and loathing of everything modern, has very different ideas about what makes for good literature. Shutov, raised on the Russian classics (especially Anton Chekhov), wants to write beautiful, moving scenes that can wring tears from his readers. Unfortunately, he was born about 150 years too late and now lives in an age of irony, of cleverness, and of pervasive capitalism that just wants to sell, sell, sell. After Léa leaves Shutov and he wallows a bit in his feelings, he impulsively returns to St. Petersburg. He lived there when it was still Leningrad and he had to flee.

The Russia Shutov finds is very different from the Soviet Union he left. The city is celebrating its 300th anniversary, with a dizzying array of historical/carnivalesque events that reminded me of Russian Ark on overdrive. His old friend, Yana, has no time for him as she is working on building a hotel empire and her son is condescending. Shutov is left to his own devices until the son asks him to keep an eye on an old man who, due to bureaucracy, is living in Yana’s apartment while awaiting transfer to a nursing home. Shutov isn’t given a chance to say no, but the chore turns out to be anything but. The old man, who Shutov was told was mute, possesses a story that encompasses some of the most harrowing years of Soviet history: the Siege of Leningrad and the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Volsky’s story is not just a story of survival; it is also a love story of two people who history seems to want to keep apart but who still manage find each other.

By the end of the old man’s story—and the end of The Life of an Unknown Man—both the reader and Shutov come to a realization. Shutov finds a new mission for his writing. He wants to write the stories of people whose names have been lost to time, to restore them to life, for the sake of their stories. Everyone has a story, he realizes. For my part, I decided that the ultimate purpose of a story, of literature, is to say something true. It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or tragic or ugly or funny or arch or popular. What matters is whether or not a story can tell us something true.

The first third of The Life of an Unknown Man was a little hard for me to get through. Shutov is an almost stereotypical mansplainer who is so convinced of the rightness of his opinions that he takes his anger out on anyone who expresses their own ideas. It’s no wonder that Léa glazes over when he starts to pontificate. But once Shutov returned to Russia and started listening to other people for a change, the entire tenor of the novel changed for me. Even if Volsky’s stories hadn’t been about a period of history I am macabrely fascinated with, I would have been hooked by the their honesty and sharp observations. At the end, I had hope that Shutov would uncover true stories to share.

historical fantasy · mystery · review

Himself, by Jess Kidd

The prologue to Jess Kidd’s horribly magical novel, Himself, is brutal. It was almost enough to put me off the book entirely as I read about a woman I later learned was called Orla Sweeney being beaten to death by an unknown man, as her infant son unwittingly watched. At the end of the prologue, the forest itself conceals a boy who grows up to become the protagonist of the rest of the novel from his would-be murderer and I was immediately hooked. Himself ended up being a blend of horror, mystery, supernatural doings, and quirkiness that I found completely fascinating. I’ve never read anything like Himself and, given how much I enjoyed Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (also titled The Hoarder), I am now a committed fan of Jess Kidd.

Mahony turns up in the town of Mulderrig, Count Mayo like a stranger in a western—at least until word gets out who’s son he is. He’s treated well (mostly) by the people of the town. He gets a bit of stick for his hair and trousers because, even though it’s 1976, rural Ireland is still in the 1950s (or earlier). It also doesn’t help him that he draws the eyes of the town’s female half and makes friends with the eccentric Mrs. Cauley. The town’s priest, Father Quinn, and his ally, Annie (who uses religion to disapprove of people) are wary of Mahony. Once he starts his investigation into his mother’s disappearance and probable murder, Quinn, Annie, and the mysterious murderer spring into action to get Mahony to drop it and leave. Flashbacks to Orla’s life before her murder let us know that Mahony is absolutely right to be suspicious of this seemingly-normal town. There are a lot of skeletons (literal and metaphorical) in the closets of Mulderrig.

Nothing in Himself happens as expected. Mrs. Cauley leaps on Mahony’s investigation with a will and comes up with a plan based on Miss Marple mysteries and her own theatrical talents. The plan shouldn’t work, but it does. The supernatural elements—such as Mahony’s ability to see and talk with ghosts—keep everything delightfully off-kilter. While Mahony, Mrs. Cauley, and their allies go to work, Father Quinn is tormented by what seems to be local spirits with a wicked sense of humor. Mrs. Cauley’s antics and whatever is messing with Father Quinn keep this book from being totally grim, giving Himself some much needed levity after the really dark parts.

My only complaint about Himself is that it was over too soon. The end was a bit of a rush, so fast that I didn’t really get a chance to decompress from the tension that Kidd had built up over the course of the book. Also, even though Mulderrig has some terrifying inhabitants, I wanted more of it. I wanted more of the ghosts and the sassy holy spring and the possibly sentient forest. But on the other hand, maybe if I had more answers about what was going on on the supernatural side of things, Himself might have lost some of the weird charm it held for me. I would definitely recommend this novel to readers who like mysteries that have a touch of the uncanny (especially if the uncanny elements do not include vampires and werewolves) and know when to crack a joke when things get too bleak.

I listened to the audio version of Himself, narrated by Aiden Kelly’s gentle Irish voice. I was glad of the narration because I would never have figured out how to pronounce some of the characters’ names correctly.

historical fiction · review

Prairie Fever, by Michael Parker

There are plenty of stories about the American west in which white settlers go a little crazy—plenty of nonfiction stories, too. But I think that Prairie Fever, by Michael Parker, is the first time I’ve met a manic pixie dream girl in the barely colonized American west. This novel centers on two sisters, Elise and Lorena, who are temperamentally opposites but who complete each other. Lorena is the practical older sister with a penchant for correcting other’s grammar. Elise is….a very odd girl who never thinks about the consequences of her whimsy. Her actions lead to a terrible loss and a long estrangement. I have to say, I was not nearly as charmed by Elise as many of the characters in this novel are; I am firmly on Team Lorena.

We meet Elise and Lorena as they are making their way to school on a frozen Oklahoma morning. It’s so cold that their mother pins them into a blanket so that they can ride in some comfort. They have to be unpinned at the other end by the teacher, Mr. Gus McQueen. Their first conversation in the book tells you everything you need to know about these two teenagers. Elise speaks in quotes from their local newspaper, focusing on the odd and mildly amusing. Lorena makes the occasional comment and correction. She indulges her sisters interests, but does at least the minimum to keep her sister grounded in reality. Their mother is still a bit lost in her grief for their two brothers, who died of “prairie fever” years before. Their father is only interested in the next get rich scheme. The sisters only have each other to keep each other safe—which basically means it’s up to Lorena to keep her sister safe.

Elise does something incredibly stupid near the beginning of the book. Her “accident” leads to frostbite for herself and the mercy killing of their faithful horse who was injured in the storm that took Elise’s toes and ring finger. I was willing to go along with Elise’s whimsy somewhat (even though I found it annoyingly twee), but I found that I could never forgive her for causing the death of her horse. Throughout the rest of the book, I saw Elise just compounding her error by refusing to take responsibility for any of her actions. I was more willing to forgive Elise for “stealing” Mr. McQueen from Lorena than I was for riding off on a horse in the middle of a blizzard. Love happens by genuine accident all the time. Doing something anyone with sense would consider nigh suicidal and then never acknowledging one’s culpability is another matter entirely.

What redeemed Prairie Fever for me was the loving descriptions of the harsh landscape. Being a westerner myself, I could empathize with all of the characters’ admiration for the sunsets, the big skies, and the way that life can grow in a place with extreme weather. I also softened on the book as Elise started to lose some of what I thought of as affectations and grow up a bit and as Lorena’s life followed a trajectory that ended up punishing her more than it did her family and Elise. That said, I’m not sure I can recommend this book to other readers unless they have a high tolerance for tweeness. Some readers love a manic pixie dream girl. I just find them exhausting.

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

literary fiction · review

People in the Room, by Norah Lange

Trigger warning for suicidal ideation.

Who hasn’t wondered about what’s happening on the other side of the window in other people’s houses? Briefly glimpsed neighbors’ attitudes, manners, clothes, or expressions can give us hints but, unless we screw up the courage to make their acquaintance, we will always wonder about what happens inside those other houses. The unnamed protagonist of Norah Lange’s brief, disturbing novella, People in the Room (ably translated by Charlotte Whittle), becomes obsessed with the three women she sees through a window across the street. The impulse to wonder is perfectly natural, but the protagonist takes her wonderings to extremes. And yet, she is so unreliable that it’s hard to say whether anything actually happens at all. This is definitely a book to put one on one’s toes.

It all starts on an ordinary day sometime during the World Wars in Buenos Aires, when our protagonist happens to look up from her book to see three women—sisters—in a drawing room across the street. The women are mysterious. They don’t speak. They just sit and smoke and sip at wine or tea. Our protagonist begins to imagine who they are and how they came to be in that room. She might have gone on wondering forever if she hadn’t intercepted the reply to a telegram they sent and thus wrangled an excuse to introduce herself. In spite of all her hinting and questioning after that, our protagonist never seems to learn much more about the three sisters. And then, one day while our protagonist is away on a holiday suggested by her slightly worried family, they disappear.

People in the Room will be frustrating to a lot of readers. It was certainly frustrating to me. The brief description of it I had read made me think that I was getting something in the vein of Rear Window, though without the murder plot. It was clearly almost immediately that this was not that kind of book, even though it had a very claustrophobic and sinister atmosphere. Instead, the forward by César Aira was much more helpful for understanding this book. People in the Room predates Rear Window by a couple of decades, putting in the later part of the modernist period. The book stays with the unnamed narrator’s off-kilter thoughts for the entirety. Aira also notes that Lange was an inspiration for Jorge Luis Borges, a wonderfully experimental writer who often wrote about possibilities that don’t quite play out in reality. Readers who like thinking about “what if?” and are okay with books in which nothing much actually happens, where the action is all in a character’s head, might enjoy this challenging novella.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Solovyov and Larionov, by Eugene Vodolazkin

I don’t think that a lot of historians would like to have it pointed out to them that what they do with historical documents can look an awful lot like what literary critics do with the fictional texts. That comparison came to mind over and over as I read Solovyov and Larionov, by Eugene Vodolazkin (translated by Lisa Hayden in fluid, erudite English). Graduate student Solovyov is working on his dissertation about a White Army general named Larionov. So far, he has only found a few discrepancies in the only biography of the general, but his work is promising. When Solovyov receives a stipend and permission to go to a Larionov conference in Kerch*, he has the chance to answer the biggest question about the general’s life: how on earth did he manage to avoid execution by the Bolsheviks after the end of the Russian Civil War?

Solovyov and Larionov moves back and forth in time, from St. Petersburg and Yalta in 1996, to Yalta and the Crimea in 1920. We learn about Solovyo’s youth near an obscure railroad station at the same time that we learn about Larionov’s privileged upbringing as the son of military men and a railroad baron. While we learn about the two men’s biographies, we also see Vodolazkin making gentle fun of academia. Academia, it seems, is the same pretty much everywhere. There are university departments full of people who will defend their pet theories to the death or who can build castles in the air over the slightest evidence. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was nodding along with some of the papers delivered at the conference while laughing at others as ridiculous.

Because Larionov, apart from his defense of the Crimea against the nascent Red Army, led a quiet life, there’s not much information about him. Some of it, in the form of a memoir, was lost. This is part of what leads Solovyov south to the Crimea. He might be able to find more information about the general that has been overlooked before now. He even finds the dacha where Larionov lived from the 1920s until his death in 1976. (There is a blackly hilarious section about the various inhabitants of the dacha after it was divided up into apartments. Members of the Cheka keep killing each other to get a nicer place in the dacha.) Until Solovyov learns that it might be possible to recover Larionov’s memoir, all he has is what he can glean from White and Red Army records and what other historians have picked over. In lieu of documentary evidence, those other historians (and, on one occasion, a folklorist) have started to speculate about the gaps in Larionov’s history to theorize about how he managed to escape the fate of so many people who were killed by the Bolsheviks (including a lot of Bolsheviks themselves). Solovyov keeps his mind open, hoping to find out more about the hints in the general’s story that someone in the Soviet government was protecting him.

I wasn’t sure about whether I was going to stick around for the rest of the novel. Solovyov and Larionov is a slow burn with a complicated structure and heaping spoonfuls of satire and historical tangents. It took a while for me to warm up to Solovyov, though I was as interested in Larionov as the horde of historians in this book. Solovyov is more of a vehicle for plot and ideas than he is a character, at least until he learns about his own connection to the Larionov family. Readers who enjoy books about ideas—especially ones that make fun of the eccentricities and ridiculousness of academia—may like this book. Readers who want a fast, tense novel about the Russian Civil War will probably not appreciate all the discursions and tangents. Once I was hooked into this meandering, funny, interesting book, I couldn’t put it down.

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

Yalta Quay, Yalta (Image via Wikicommons)

* Kerch and Yalta are located on the Crimean Peninsula, which is territory disputed by Ukraine and Russia. I am not getting into the middle of that conflict by assigning the peninsula to one country or another because I don’t want a flame war in the comments.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Satapur Moonstone, by Sujata Massey

Lawyer Perveen Mistry’s adventures in British India continue in Sujata Massey’s The Satapur Moonstone. Perveen has gained a reputation for conflict mediation between women in purdah (religious and/or cultural seclusion). She can go where men cannot and her strong sense of right and intelligence help her cut through seemingly impossible disputes. That reputation nets her an unlikely job offer from a British governing agency to settle an intractable disagreement between two maharanis in the obscure (possibly fictional) princely state of Satapur.

Though she never says it, I think Perveen was not paid enough to take on the challenges she finds in Satapur. First, there’s the palanquin. Because there are no real roads in Satapur and Perveen is not a confident horsewoman, she has to travel in what appears to be the only palanquin in the state. Then there’s the British agent who she sparks with (even though she is fierce about maintaining her reputation and not letting people know about her disastrous marriage). Then there’s the dispute over the education of the very young maharaja, who has just lost his father and older brother in somewhat suspicious circumstances. And then there are the maharanis. The maharaja’s grandmother, the dowager maharani, is a hidebound woman who wants nothing to change in the state. On the other side is the maharaja’s mother, Mirabai, wants to send her son away to England…because she things someone is trying to kill him.

The Satapur Moonstone is a fast read. (I recommend that readers who are interested in this one pick up the first book in the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill, so that they can be caught up on Perveen’s life before diving into this one.) It seems as though Perveen is barely unpacked for a short stay at the palace of Satapur before people are trying to kill her. There are plenty of suspects and lots of dodgy stories for Perveen to pick apart—and for us to puzzle over as we race our protagonist towards the solution. Even though the plot races along, there are plenty of expository passages to set the stage in the Satapur wilderness and its eerie palace. Massey is a deft touch at drawing characters from a few lines of dialogue and description, too, so I never felt like I was being cheated out of setting or character development in favor of the plot.

The Satapur Moonstone is a fine entry in a series that I’m starting to love. I hope to see more of Perveen in the future. I also hope that we see more of Colin Sandringham, the British agent who likes to do yoga in the jungle without his shirt on. Even though he’s a bit defensive about his missing foot, I developed a bit of a crush on him, too.

historical fiction · review

The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen

The question of what it means to be good is one that we can never answer, no matter what the philosophers and theologians might say. This is the epiphany I had about three quarters of the way through Thomas Mullen’s devastating novel, The Last Town on Earth. The novel opens on an ethical dilemma, played out in the real (well, fictional version of the real) world. A man and a teenager are guarding a road. Behind them is the town of Commonwealth, Washington, which has so far been spared the 1918 Spanish Flu. They’ve placed themselves under quarantine to try to ride out the pandemic. Unfortunately for the man and the teen, another man in soldier’s clothes has just begged them for food and shelter so that he doesn’t die of exposure. What would be the right thing to do? Save the one man and risk the many? Or shoot the man when he refuses to go away to save the town’s inhabitants?

There are many kinds of good (or “good”) people in The Last Town on Earth. There are characters—like the teenager, Philip, who we meet at the beginning of the novel—who constantly worry if they’re doing the right thing. Philip agonizes over his part in the disaster that opens the novel and its fall out. His adopted father, Charles Worthy, who owns the mill that fuels the town, increasingly wonders if the quarantine was the right thing to do or if it would’ve been better to leave Commonwealth open. And the town doctor, Dr. Banes, tries to wring every bit of knowledge out of letters from a colleague and his old medical books about influenza to try and help Charles make the right decisions about averting the flu. On the other hand, there are characters like Graham—the man we meet along with Philip at the beginning of The Last Town on Earth—and several of the leading men in the neighboring town of Timber Falls, who never doubt that they are doing the right thing. They are more frightening than the Spanish Flu because they continue on wrecking things in the name of “doing the right thing.”

The Last Town on Earth begins a few weeks into Commonwealth’s quarantine, on the last day that things are relatively okay in the town. But after the stranger appears on the road to Commonwealth, everything goes rapidly to hell. Another stranger pops up on the road and refuses to go away. There’s a posse of upright citizens from Timber Falls who are sure that those Commonwealth folk are up to something anti-American and communistic because Charles insists on paying a living wage to his mill workers. When the flu inevitably breaks out anyway, because there is always someone in an attempted utopia who breaks the rules and messes things up. Philip et al. have enough on their plate even without their moral crises, though it seems as if all three of the main characters—Philip, Graham, and Charles—spend a lot of energy either worrying if they did the right thing or trying to rationalize their actions. It sounds a little wearying, but it’s not at all. Mullen’s characters are so human and fully developed that I could empathize with almost everyone.

Health poster, c. 1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

While the narrative mostly focuses on Philip and Graham and, to a lesser extent, Charles, there are several chapters narrated by tertiary characters or that consist solely of dialogue from the townspeople as rumors start to get out of control in the town. In an author’s note, Mullen discusses the multiple panics that descended on the United States at the end of World War I that inspired this novel. (Mullen has a deft hand with his research. The history in this book is very well done. I didn’t have any lingering questions or urges to dive into Wikipedia. I also never felt like I was in a seminar.) There’s the fear of the flu, obviously, but also fear of communism (the First Red Scare), the fear of German spies, fear of the draft, and fear of strikebreakers (there are multiple references to the Everett Massacre of 1917). Commonwealth and Timber Falls are a microcosm of all of these fears. The rumors and the characters’ actions get more frantic as these many fears grow stronger.

I wasn’t sure about The Last Town on Earth at first. I worried that it would be a series of ethical dilemmas without any psychological underpinning to make me really care about the consequences of the characters’ decisions. I’m glad I stuck with this book, however. With each chapter, the world of Commonwealth became increasingly real to me. I fretted as much as the characters did as they deliberated between all the bad options in front of them. Normally, when I read historical fiction, I wonder what I would have done if I was in that time and place. That didn’t happen with The Last Town on Earth. There are no clear answers to the questions presented in this book and that is, perhaps, the best thing in this terrific book.