This story is set in a 17th century British village that is dealing with the black plague. The village at the behest of the pastor decides to quaranti...moreThis story is set in a 17th century British village that is dealing with the black plague. The village at the behest of the pastor decides to quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of disease to towns in the adjacent countryside. The story is based on a true tale from the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, where townspeople actually did decide to segregate themselves and let the plague run its course. The ravages of the bubonic plague provide the back drop for this feminist tale of Anna Firth. She is a young widow with two small children, who comes from a poor abusive family and works in service to the village pastor. She is uneducated but resourceful. The trials of the plague and her growing relationship to the pastor, Michael Millepellion and his wife Elinor provide opportunities for Anna’s development. The author does a good job of firmly setting this novel in 17th century Britain. The language is contemporary to the time and everyday life of the villagers is well portrayed. As the plague takes its’ victims, the plot deals with not only the tragedy of the losses but with the everyday problems of what to do when the blacksmith is dead, the herbalist is dead, etc. Anna becomes the unlikely heroine of this novel as she retains a clear focus on life as death is everywhere around her. As other turn from religion and herbal cures to witch hunting and sorcery she makes life affirming choices in the face of almost unbelievable circumstances. The characters are multi dimensional. Anna makes good choices and bad. Anna’s father, a despicable character is given a back story that helps understanding of his life choices. There are hidden complexities – both good and bad - to the pastor and his wife that are slowly revealed.
I think this book is excellent historical fiction. It is an engrossing and believable story of what life would have been like in a plague infected 17th century English village. The author takes a topic that in most hands would be depressing beyond belief and makes it an uplifting story. I liked this book so well that I overlook the last chapter which comes in from Mars or beyond.(less)
I am going to have a difficult time reviewing this book. I have always loved the Inspector Linley series by Elizabeth George. I was dismayed when Geor...moreI am going to have a difficult time reviewing this book. I have always loved the Inspector Linley series by Elizabeth George. I was dismayed when George killed off Linley’s wife Helen in With No One as Witness, disappointed in her previous novel Careless in Red and really, really disappointed in This Body of Death. I’ve kept reading this series because I have much enjoyed the characters -Inspector Linley, Barbara Havers, Simon St. James and his wife Deborah. They are well drawn and rich in detail. The nuances of class in British society are well described. But I think this might be it for me. This book is 600 plus pages long. It moves at a glacial pace. There is a murder in a London cemetery. The girl who is murdered is from the countryside. There is a historical story that is told in alternating chapters with the real time murder mystery. The historical story speaks to some of the problems of children raised in poverty. It all comes together at the end but it is tortorous. There are numerous characters many of whom are extraneous to the plot. Almost all of the characters seem to lack passion, only Barb Havers delivers in expanding her character in her relationship with her neighbors and her new boss. A new character, Isabelle Ardery, the acting superintendent is introduced. She appears to be a complex person, but the author really doesn’t develop her well. Inspector Linley is oddly passive throughout most of the story and not the protoganist. By the time the murder is solved I bet very few of the readers even care. The motivation for the murder is murky and the murderer is one dimensional. I hate to be this negative about a book and maybe if the earlier books in this series were not excellent and my hopes so high for this one I would be less disappointed. I miss the Elizabeth George of old - characters we care about, tight plot lines, and less social commentary!(less)
This is an epic book. I can’t imagine that anyone will write a narrative of 20th century China that will approach the richness of detail, breath of to...moreThis is an epic book. I can’t imagine that anyone will write a narrative of 20th century China that will approach the richness of detail, breath of topic and unsettling nature of this work. The author tells the tale through the stories of three women – her grandmother Yu-Fang, her mother Bao-Qin and herself. China’s 20th century included the demise of the feudal warlords, the Japanese invasion, the fall of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, the rise of Mao-Tse-Tung, the installation of communism as the national government, and the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Jung Chang’s family is caught up in all of these events.
Her grandmother was born into feudal China. Her feet were broken and bound in an effort to keep them from growing, a practice common in the first half of the twentieth century in China. She was essentially sold as a concubine to a warlord (translate gangster) general twice her age. She spent very little time with him but did conceive one child, the author’s mother. She then marries a Manchurian (Manchuria a place more foreign that China if that is possible) doctor, has some frightening experiences with both the doctor’s family and then during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.
The author’s mother, Bao-Qin, is an early convert to communism. It is not hard to understand how communism engaged the people of China. The repressive nature of the Nationalist regime and the obscene difficulty of life (famine and starvation were common, women were held as property) made the communist movement an attractive egalitarian choice. The author’s father, Wang-Yu, is also with Mao early in the communist movement. He actually makes The Long March with Mao. Her father dedicates his life to the principles of the communist movement, an allegiance later betrayed. Both of her parents are senior officials, intellectuals and enthusiastic nation builders as the communists take over China and try to improve conditions for the populace. The early years of the communists are good, and much of China thrives. The government evolves into a personality cult of Chairman Mao and the country essentially falls apart in the 60’s. I found the descriptions of the events of the Cultural Revolution horrifying. Mao did not persecute the country using government agencies but he incited the people to turn on one another. It was heartbreaking and frightening to see the evil that people inflicted on their friends and neighbors. The author’s family survives this period, but barely. Her father who had dedicated his life to the communist agenda is denounced and arrested when he takes principled stands against corruption. He is “relocated” to the countryside for years of “reeducation”. He suffers a nervous breakdown and is dead at the age of 54. Her mother is also denounced and relocated. The author recounts her time as a Red Guard and her very gradual disillusionment with Mao and his actions. The Cultural Revolution which started slowly in the late 1950s doesn’t really end until 1975 – almost 20 years of torture for China.
The book ends when Chairman Mao dies, the Cultural Revolution is over and some semblance of normalcy returns to China. Education at all levels had been suspended for 8 years and is slowly reestablished. The author is able to leave a factory job and through merit become a university student studying English.
This is not a book to be read in a short sitting. You really could walk away from it for a couple days as some of the scenes are very intense and gripping. It can be hard to believe you are reading non-fiction. The author clearly and interestingly tells you the story of her family. I think though it is an important book giving witness to cataclysmic events through the eyes of three incredibly strong women. I was familiar with much of this history but had no understanding of the Chinese people and what they have endured until I read this story. I’d recommend it for anyone traveling to China or interested in Chinese history. I was in China in 1984 and would have loved to have had read this story before that assignment.(less)