Norfolk's novel is beautifully presented as a physical object, with a striking cover and lovely woodblock prints. The depiction of the 17th century ki...moreNorfolk's novel is beautifully presented as a physical object, with a striking cover and lovely woodblock prints. The depiction of the 17th century kitchen is fascinating, too. There's many sensual details, whether it's the slick feel of the greasy troughs that the scullery boys must scrape out as they clean the plates, or the spit and hiss of the juice dripping from a pig as it is slowly turned over the fire. The reader really gets a feel of the military precision in which a kitchen of that era was run. Pity it's welded to an utterly banal plot that either slows to a crawl or skims too fast, and with many jolting shifts in time and point-of-view to add to the headache. Wild-eyed fanatical puritans and drunken, cowardly suitors without a smidgen of grey--you'll find them here, too. There's the usual nonsense of (view spoiler)[ the almost-raped virgin tumbling into bed with her rescuer mere moments after the assault (hide spoiler)] and some poorly-explained mystical tosh about a long-lost feast from the people from the hollow hills that the main character wishes to regain. Or something.(less)
This review is giving me fits! I've been thinking about it for days, and my deadline for my GR book group challenge is almost here: the following is p...more
This review is giving me fits! I've been thinking about it for days, and my deadline for my GR book group challenge is almost here: the following is part of my stalling tactic/chat with my fellow members that I've substituted for, you know, actually writing the review:
Me: I am really having a hard time approaching this review. The Alienist vs. The Gods of Gotham smackdown? Analysis of the plot structure and the demands of a satisfying mystery? The problems of anachronisms--most disturbingly, of out-of-time characters? Pretty language too often tipping over into "rosy-fingered" mush? I write very slowly, and as I have to leave in a few hours, I don't think I'm going to get my bloated kitty badge. :(
From Jane: Here you go:
I read _____. I gave it ___ stars, because of the plot structure, anachronisms, out-of-time characters, and pretty language that devolves into "rosy-fingered" mush.
Me: Thanks, Jane!
So, I am taking Jane's advice. Here you go, Janice:
This novel, which received so much attention last summer, deserves more time than I can give it just now. There's much to admire here--some great language (including the use of underworld "flash"), gritty details, and a complicated denoument, which may satisfy some readers--and frustrate others. But there's a big old problem in the middle of the novel, and it's called (view spoiler)[ Mercy. Not lower-case mercy, as in quality of, but Mercy, the woman.
And for the smackdown? I give the nod to "The Alienist."
**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so t...more**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so that the reader can be accused of being pedantic. (In the early years of our marriage my husband would lean over to me in movie theaters and whisper that that guys in war movies were wearing uniforms that were a little out of date but I finally broke him of that habit). No, I'm talking about making a totally dumb factual mistake, like having a regency heroine taking a casual stroll to Windsor Castle when the author really meant Buckingham Palace, or misunderstanding a character's world point of view so fundamentally that the reader literally jerks his head from the pages, and even if he does manage to continue the book he never really trusts the author again. I once had a friend fling "Pet Cemetery" aside; no vet, she said, would be against sterilizing dogs and cats, and since she worked as a veterinary assistant she knew what she was talking about, and had no interest in reading a book whose protagonist was so far-fetched. Alan Brennert makes such an error in Moloka'i, only his misstep is even more egregious than Stephen King's since it is an important, though not central part of the plot.
In the beginning, I liked the book well enough. I lived in Hawai'i for some years. I know how deeply skeptical (to put it mildly) people born in the islands view haole mainlanders coming in and writing about their homeland, but I was willing to give it a try. Besides, what did I know about turn of the century O'ahu since I had never lived there, and one brief visit to Molokai and occasional chats about the island with an acquaintance who had grown up there certainly didn't make me an expert. It was a choice for my book group, too, so I thought I'd better get going.
Young Rachel develops leprosy in turn of the century O'ahu and is eventually sent to the colony at Kalaupapa. The description of the symptoms of the disease, and the long bureaucratic process that banishes her to the other island, make for interesting reading. The novel traces the course of her life, and as sometimes happens in this sort of historical novel which covers a long period of time, the author crams in a lot of laboriously-researched events and details that don't quite fit, and it may also be for that reason that the book had a certain emotional distance. I never felt that close to the main character. OK, a great many historical novelists fall into this trap; it's understandable that you want to share all that hard work.
It was at this point the author makes his big mistake.(view spoiler)[ Rachel and her husband have a baby, and they are forced to send the baby away. The little girl is adopted by a Japanese couple and they move to California. Eventually she and her new family are put into the internment camp at Manzanar.
It.Could.Never.Have.Happened. Not in a million years. Not today, and certainly not almost a hundred years ago. No issei peasant family would have adopted a child---especially a girl(!) that was a hapa (or as the Japanese say, hafu) girl from an unknown, "unclean" bloodline. It would have been out of the question. It simply is not possible. When I told my husband about this plot twist he looked bewildered and said "Was the family really Christian, or something? But even so...."
You see, my husband and I have lived in Japan, and one of the organizations I belonged to has sponsored an orphanage since the end of WWII. The children grow up there; almost none of them leave in "outside" adoptions. It is NOT a Japanese custom (or indeed an Asian custom) to adopt outside the family. Bloodlines are very important. And the idea of a non-Christian man with three boys agreeing to take in a strange girl just because his wife wanted a daughter was just so deeply wrong that I set the book aside and wondered if I should continue. I am sorry not to be PC, but these are the facts and the author should have known something about Japanese culture. It would have taken two minutes of research.
But no, the author was bound and determined to shoe-horn Manzanar into the plot, just so that he could make a heavy-handed parallel of the two internments, so he shoved it in, with no regards as to what actually could have happened. (hide spoiler)] Shaken, I continued (after all it was a book group choice) but my confidence in the author was gone. I kept wondering... what other facts had Brennert twisted and contrived to suit his purposes? What would a kama'aina reader think of this book? Was the Hawaiian viewpoint misrepresented as well and I wasn't close enough to see it? What else had I missed? Should an outsider even attempt to write about a fundamentally foreign culture? It really made me aware of all the manipulative tricks the author had used; I could barely keep my mind on the last part of the novel.
Now, some readers just read for the fun of reading about an exotic land and they might say I am just being fussy, and that it is OK, or not really important that he misrepresented another culture's mindset. But people, we read historical fiction to learn about other times and cultures. What's the point if the author holds up a mirror instead of a window, and pretends otherwise? It's just a cheat. Brennert's mistake bothered me. It really did. Because when an author breaks faith with his reader...well, what else is left?
Post Script Nov 7th:
I've made some strongly worded criticisms calling Brennert to task for a key implausability in his story, which are concealed in the spoiler. For those who are curious, or who need more convincing, please check the comments, where I've linked to half a dozen articles supporting my views. Any discussion on how important the truth is in historical fiction is welcome (with the caveat that comments along the line of oh-it-is-just-fiction-so-anything goes will not be viewed as a seriously debatable position); disputing the claims from sources such as the L.A. Times/Japan Times/Time Magazine/The Department of State/The American Embassy in Japan/ The BBC/ The Seattle Times/Reuters in favor of personal stories not really relevant to the main topic, or opinions based more on wishful Western feelings rather than facts will not be responded to. Thanks!