There is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. I...moreThere is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. It is of immense importance to keep the past alive through personal, human stories, in the hopes that we will be better prepared, better able to spot such atrocities today and in the future. Sadly we've seen that this is a nice theory that doesn't play out; however it's important to keep trying.
One area of WWII that is less explored but equally important are stories from the non-Jewish perspective, stories about Nazi soldiers or ordinary German civilians, stories about others who also experienced the war but in different ways. The Paris Architect adds to this meagre slice of historical fiction pie with its story of a French gentile and architect, Lucien Bernard, who has no particular feelings either way about the Jews - though when pressed, he's no "Jew-lover" - but seeks to get by under German occupation.
In a strained and childless marriage to Celeste, and a social-climber mistress, Adele, on the side, Lucien's big ambition in life is to have one of his designs built in Paris for all to see. The occupation has made much of life and work in the city stall, but there are also surprising opportunities as well. The Germans are building infrastructure - factories to make the weapons used against the Allies - on French soil, working with well-established French businessmen and unpaid forced labour to get their projects built fast. Lucien is approached by one such businessman, an old man called Manet, who has a frightening proposal. Flattering Lucien's skills and vanity and appealing to a sense of moral rightness that Lucien doesn't feel he possesses, Manet dangles the promise of hiring Lucien to build a big munitions factory if he will also design an ingenious hiding place for a wealthy Jew being hunted by the Gestapo.
It isn't a sense of empathy for the Jews that leads Lucien to take on the task, one that could see him tortured and killed. It's the challenge, the vanity, of besting others that leads Lucien to agree to Manet's terms despite his incredible fear. Lucien isn't interested in dying for a cause. He wants to live, survive the war, and prosper too. Architecture is more important to him than anything else in his life.
But as Manet continues to ask Lucien to design more hiding places for terrified Jews, and Lucien even meets one of the men he's helping, something in him begins to change. The Jews become human beings, and the matter of hiding them, helping them survive and escape, becomes deeply personal. But as the Gestapo cotton on to the hiding places and begin torturing builders and craftsmen for information, the net starts to tighten around Lucien and Manet. How much longer before connections are made, and their time is up?
The Paris Architect is a wonderful story, a fresh take on the story of German occupation in France, the plight of Jews and life for non-Jews under the occupation. Lucien is one of those flawed characters who is undeniably, realistically human - the kind of person you can relate to because his concerns, his fears, his sense of morality are, lets be honest, the norm. Whether it's World War II or today, most of us would be just like Lucien, regardless of how much we'd like to think we'd do better, be better. Human nature trumps in survival cases. If we already ignore people who are suffering in times of peace, why would we think we'd be any better in times of war and terror?
Yet Lucien also shows that you can make choices and change. You can decide what you want to stand for, what's worth fighting for - and dying for. The tension in this novel is palpable, aided by gruesome scenes of torture by the Gestapo on French civilians. From a craftsmanship angle, a more subtle technique ("less is more") would have been just as affective, if not more so. The problem with Belfoure's scenes of torture is that it's hard to write such scenes, especially in a readable novel like this (as opposed to a more "literary" style, as much as I hate using that term), without sliding into cheese. I'm not sure that Belfoure was quite successful in getting into the minds of Gestapo officers - can't really fault him for that - but in the absence of true insight or understanding, the tension and genuine fear can be created in other, more convincing ways. The Gestapo officers began to sound like clichéd film villains in silly action movies - a Stallone cheesefest from the 80s, that kind of thing.
Belfoure was clearly more comfortable with the civilian characters, and developed Lucien into a believable, sympathetic character even when he's not all that likeable. The fact that he matures and becomes, for want of a less corny expression, a "better person", absolves him of his earlier vanity and ego. Not to mention that he's quite honest with himself about his vanity and ego.
There's a lot to learn from The Paris Architect - about daily life under occupation, about architecture and, especially, about human nature. Not always predictable, the tension and drama propels the story forwards to a fitting climax. At its heart, The Paris Architect is about the small deeds of courage and conscience that people are capable of in times of oppression and fear. While the self-policing conducted by French citizens on each other - spying on their neighbours, reporting people to the police to protect themselves - is unflattering, it serves to make those smaller, sometimes barely visible deeds all the more important. If I can bastardise a quote from Othello for a moment here, I would say that people like Lucien and Bette lived "not wisely, but too well." The point being, they lived, and they lived a life they could be proud of by making choices that weren't wise in the circumstances, but were worth it.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
It is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that th...moreIt is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that there was anything wrong. Her father, a bee keeper and general handyman, is non-committal - first he tells his daughter that her mother has gone to another war rally and won't be back for a few days, but after a while he simply says nothing. Instead he takes Lissy out of school for the last couple of weeks of the school year so he can take her with him on his annual rounds, distributing his bees at three different privately-owned orchards.
There is Earl Caulkins and his apple trees; an aloof and mildly eccentric author, Chance Curtis; and irascible farmer Les van den Hoven whose busy, loud and cheerful wife, Opal, is everything Lissy's mother is not. Opal takes Lissy under her wing for the week they stay at the farm, introducing her to painted nails and gossip. It doesn't quite make up for her mother's absence, but it helps. Later, over the summer holidays, she goes again with her dad and the bees, this time to wild blueberry crops and other out-of-the-way places.
It isn't until she starts a new school year at her small town's middle school that she realises something is definitely off. The mothers of girls she goes to school with are avoiding her as if she has something contagious. Her best friend Katie doesn't want to walk with her to school anymore, and arranges for her brother to switch lockers so hers isn't beside Melissa's anymore. Kids whisper around her and then suddenly stop, ostracise her or treat her meanly in the hallway. And she has no idea why, because no one will tell her. Nothing touches on her idolatry view of her absent mother, whom, she thinks, went away because she's sick - cancer, Lissy thinks, after reading about it in the library.
Whether her mother was present in the house or far away and silent, she manages to deeply affect Lissy's life. As Melissa grows up, spending summers with her dad and the bees and her school days writing stories and poems, her mother takes on a larger-than-life, demigod-like aspect. Such is how she copes with her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Nothing and no one can replace her, so it's a shock when her father moves on with his life - and expects her to move with him.
Bee Summers is a fairly short coming-of-age novel told with childlike confusion and puzzlement by its protagonist, Melissa. Set somewhere in east United States (there are references to Boston), the late 60s and early 70s provide a vague backdrop of upheaval and public protest, while the fashions, decorating styles and cars give nice period details. In the early parts of the story, there is plenty of evidence that Lissy's mother isn't someone you or I would like all that much, but Melissa is a strongly sympathetic character who misses her mother deeply. It's clear to us that her mother has walked out for her own reasons, and that Melissa is too young to understand without being explicitly told. It's hard to agree with her father not to tell her the truth, and the idea that he's both protecting Lissy and preserving her idea of her mother falls apart later when it becomes clear he just didn't want to talk about it (he was, like many men of his time, a war veteran from the Korean war, and also like many men of his time, found it hard to open up about anything). Because no one tells her otherwise, naturally Melissa creates an image of her mother as this loving, wonderful woman.
Yet Melissa also grows up increasingly lonely and closed-off, and perhaps because she does come from what is essentially a "broken home" with no motherly support or guidance, she matures slowly. I found it hard to empathise with her over her father's decisions to remarry and move. Certainly, if nothing else, Bee Summers shows how much damage can ensue when people don't talk to each other openly and honestly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication result in what was, to me, a truly tragic ending. What's interesting about Melissa as a carefully-constructed character is how realistically flawed she is, and how clearly you can detect her mother and father's genetic inheritance in her. Her personality is her own but she has inherited characteristics from her parents; if both parents are uncommunicative, and at least one is inherently selfish, it's not surprisingly that you see it in Melissa as well. She doesn't make great choices all the time. She does live in fear, later, that because she didn't have a mother for so long, she doesn't know how to be one herself. Dugan has achieved a careful and honest balance between Melissa's vulnerable flaws and tender fragility. It's hard to dislike Lissy because so much of her character is a result of her circumstances. That said, had her mother stayed around, she probably would have grown up much like her - since she listened to her so much - and might have ended up even less likeable. It's an interesting aspect to the novel, and makes this a story that you can't read aimlessly or passively.
Where the novel disappointed me somewhat was in the development of Lissy's voice - she narrates in first-person past tense, which is a strong choice (you all know by now how much I'm coming to detest the latest fad for using present tense). However, her voice is a child's voice, rather than an adult's voice reliving a child's perspective, and I found this a bit weird and confusing. Almost as if you're reading about someone who's development has stunted. It bleeds into the later parts of the story, too, so that Melissa always sounds desperately immature.
Secrets abound in this story about silence and selfishness. (How's that for a bit of alliteration?) For me, the stars of the story were the bees themselves - I have a deep love for these precious little creatures who are so instrumental to the survival of life on earth. I can't resist any story with "bees" in the title or on the cover, whether they figure as part of the story or not. While the bee summers of Melissa's youth fade into her childhood with the blush of nostalgia - as these things do - I was left bereft and saddened that the bees had left the story. I liked hearing about them, and wanted more. But they had served their purpose, plot-device-wise, and everything must change and move on. That's always a strong theme of coming-of-age novels, that things end and we must grow up and lose our innocence. The sense of that is strong in Bee Summers, and perhaps it's that quality of honest realism that makes it hard to tease out my response. The past of our childhood always has an element of pain, humiliation, gaucheness to it, that makes us shy away from it while at the same time missing it. I'm always impressed by writers who can capture something that ephemeral, that ambiguous, and Dugan has captured it so well I'm left feeling off-footed and mildly uncomfortable. Not an easy book to review but I do recommend it for those readers who like coming-of-age stories.
In 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A lon...moreIn 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A long-time theatre appreciator who's never seen a play, it takes a chance encounter with two people about his own age, Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley, to motivate him into quitting his clerk job and leaving his parents behind to embark on his own life. His mother has been locked up in the mental asylum in Seston since Luke was five; he visits her often and resents his father, a Polish migrant who once flew fighter planes in World War II, for never seeing her or talking to her. He takes the train to London and calls the one person he knows there: Paul.
Paul is not much past twenty but doesn't want to be the engineer his father pushed him to be. He wants to be a producer. Now with Luke on side, a plan begins to take shape and a fledgling theatre company arises. With several others, they form Graft, a small, artsy theatre above a pub. When handsome, charming Luke sleeps with the stage manager and then doesn't talk to her again, she leaves and they hire Leigh. The same spark of familiarity, connection and desire that was there when they first met is still alive, but Luke is taking the admonishment of not sleeping with the stage manager to heart, and steps back. Paul fills the gap, and after a while of dating him Leigh moves in to their flat and the three settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Also in London is Nina, a young actress trying to break in. Raised mostly by her absent (and unknown) father's sister, her mother has been the dominant presence in her life. An actress who didn't want the burden of raising a child she didn't want, Marianne is selfish and egotistical. All Nina has ever wanted is her mother's love and approval; she'll do anything and become anything to make her mother happy. That's how she finds herself going to drama school, even though she's so shy, and how she became a shell of a person easily sculpted by anyone dominant and confident enough to take on the task. Which is what happens when she meets Tony Moore, a producer and one of her mother's young ex-lovers. Tony arranges her, dresses her and trains her like something between a doll and a pet. Nina hides so deeply behind a blank - appeasing and pleasing - mask that it's not long before any vestige of an individual person able to break free and create a life for herself is gone.
It's at the performance of In Custody, a heavy play in which Nina stars, that Luke first really sees her. Barefoot, blind-folded and gagged, she comes onto the stage after an intense, dark opening in which the sounds of heavy doors opening and slamming shut can be heard. The experienced is terrifying for Luke, whose mother has been locked up for so long; when he sees vulnerable Nina, when her face is bared to him, he sees a frightened young woman who needs to be freed.
It is Luke's all-consuming love for Nina, and the affair they embark upon, that ruins old friendships and nearly scuttles his just-blooming career as a playwright. Fallout is a coming-of-age novel for both Luke and Nina, a vividly-real, intimate look into what drives us, what shapes us and what love can cost us.
This might very well be my favourite Sadie Jones novel to date, although I can't really say that because I really do like all her novels quite a lot and the ones I've read so far have all been quite different (I haven't yet read Small Wars; really must!). There is something holding me back from full-out loving her books, but for the first half-ish of Fallout I was definitely in the "love" zone. My copy is an uncorrected proof (an ARC), which meant it had lots of typos, nothing major, but it did also have a slightly unpolished feel to it. The prose was, at times, a bit awkward or unclear, the punctuation so technically incorrect that the emphasis or meaning of a sentence was distorted or lost, rendering some parts unnecessarily clumsy, like you've stumbled on an uneven floor. Again, hard to know if the punctuation was going to be fixed or whether this is the style she's developed, but the control over commas versus semicolons or even periods was sloppy. The comma isn't the "new" semicolon; they affect a sentence quite differently. Misuse either one and you ruin the rhythm of your words and disrupt the flow. You can be "experimental" with punctuation, but you can also create an annoyingly disjointed mess if you don't do it well.
This is a story about people, about Luke and Nina, Paul and Leigh, about relationships, love, the battle scars in our relationships and the mistakes we make - and sometimes learn from. The characters are real, believable, familiar. The most interesting and confronting of them all was Nina, someone you pity and feel infinitely sorry for, but whom you can't respect. She lacks will, she lacks grit, she lacks perspective. She is a product of her mother's critique and Tony's homoerotic desires (for instance, her mother keeps her skinny because chunky girls don't get hired; Tony keeps her skinny because he likes her to look like a boy). The arrival of Luke in her life, someone she feels instantly drawn and attracted to in the same way he does with her, presents an opportunity: a chance to take control of her life, figure out who she is and what she wants, and be fulfilled and happy.
But Nina has a diseased soul. Theirs is a love affair that begins with such hope and promise - you truly, truly want them both to be happy, and free, and together - that soon becomes something poisonous and even destructive. I sometimes hear, in movies maybe, people say that they're with the right person for the wrong reasons, or the wrong person for the right reasons, or some variation on that theme. There was a touch of that here. What I loved about it was how truthful, honest and messy it all was. Jones has a real knack for capturing ordinary, middle-class people in all their glorious strengths and flaws, and letting events play out naturally. While I did find that there was a slight sense of an author-creator (god-figure) manoeuvring pieces into place (it's the way she writes), once there the characters took over, their personalities guiding events and their ultimate fallout.
The star of the story was the setting and era itself: the backdrop for the fallout of relationships. London in the late 60s and early 70s is a place on the cusp, a place discovering love and life and excitement. A place still being held back by the tight grip of tradition and society but increasingly stretching its wings. Theatre is prominent, and popular. New bands and music rock the airwaves - which people actually listen to. It incorporates women's lib but nothing overtly political or radical. This is a story set in the hearts of its characters, rather than their heads. While there, I felt like I was there. I could picture things quite well thanks to all the British telly I've watched over my lifetime, and the flavour of their speech really helps catapult you there. Eminently readable but not exactly pleasurable, Fallout had me wrapped up in the characters so that I was going to bed thinking about them, however disquieting and somehow off the story and the writing was at times.
Australians have an interesting relationship with our colonial history: part pride, part shame, part love, part wince. Until fairly recently, we were...moreAustralians have an interesting relationship with our colonial history: part pride, part shame, part love, part wince. Until fairly recently, we were taught little about "Australian history" (meaning, always, white colonial history, not Indigenous-Australian history), and what we were taught was mostly the myths. James Cook was a captain (he wasn't, not at the time) and a Great Man (he was okay, but no different from anyone else of his era in his attitude towards indigenous peoples), and that he "discovered" Australia (he didn't); Joseph Banks was an intelligent, avid botanist who made meticulous records of his findings, and who we have to thank for the first settlement (he was a young, wealthy, egotistical man who shoved specimens willy-nilly into his bag and made some very ignorant observations of the east coast of Australia). That's just the 80s - go back further and people were taught some pretty offensive "facts" about the Aborigines.
When I was in primary school, I distinctly remember being taught the history of colonial Australia - settlement - from the perspective that the whites came, the soldiers incited violence with the Aboriginals and killed as many as they could, and our ancestors are all rough-made thieves. That's what stuck, anyway. I thought, for the longest time, that being taught about the bad calls made by the British in the early decades of colonialism meant that I hadn't received a pro-white Australia (i.e. biased) teaching. And perhaps I didn't. What's really worrying, though, is that - until university - that was all I was properly taught about Australian history.
In an interview with Kate Grenville on ABC radio after the release of The Secret River in 2005, the interviewer, Ramona Koval, links the title of the novel to a line in WEH Stanner's 1968 Boyer Lecture, "After the Dreaming". 'There is a secret river of blood in Australian history,' which is the history of our relationship with the Aboriginal people, the river of blood." The 'secret river' carries several meanings in connection with the novel, but this is the key one: the unspoken history, the history we're just not taught, the history we all think we know and therefore don't need to hear more about. We spend more time teaching about the bravery and horror of Gallipoli than we do our broader, more complex history - and without an understanding of our history, how are we supposed to truly understand what's happening now?
There is a river of blood in Australian history, or as Grenville put it, "cupboards" that we have "drawn a curtain over", and The Secret River aims to pull back a curtain on one such cupboard. In telling the story of Will Thornhill, a young man who was born into the extreme poverty of London in 1777, Grenville's larger story is one of miscommunication and misunderstanding - with tragic and long-reaching consequences. The Secret River does what other stories of the time don't quite manage: to remind us that the early settlers of Australia were largely uneducated, illiterate, terrified petty crooks and opportunists, people who knew nothing of the world or life beyond their area of grey, stony and rat-infested London (in Will's case: Southwark). It's not that we don't know that, but that we don't understand the implications. Between the large number of convicts and soldiers - who weren't particularly educated themselves - the Aboriginal peoples were confronted with an influx of people who were unhealthy, with little knowledge of how to grow food, who were frightened and downright struggling. They were also coming from a land where the values of hierarchy, misogyny, religion and profiteering were deeply embedded.
Will Thornhill begins life in a harsh environment, a place where every day is a struggle to survive. Just one more mouth to feed in a large family, they often resort to petty theft in order to stay alive. Will gets an unlooked-for break, though, when Mr Middleton takes him on as an apprentice waterman, a proper trade. But disaster strikes after Will becomes a full waterman and marries Mr Middleton's daughter, Sal, his best friend since childhood, and Will and Sal are reduced to petty crime in order to keep themselves and their new baby alive. In taking the time to establish Will's background and the context for his crime as well as the kind of person he is, Grenville helps us realise that quite often, we have unreasonable expectations for our white convict ancestors. We are quick to point a finger at them and lay blame at their feet for the things that happened, for their England-oriented farming style that we are still suffering the side-effects of, but really, we have to put it into context and acknowledge that, while it doesn't excuse it or make up for it, they really "didn't know any better." It's not a nice pill to swallow, because it makes us feel better to lay the blame squarely at the feet of convicts and free settlers alike, alongside Governors and other upper-class officials. But we have hindsight, and they had British imperialism.
The story follows Will and his growing family through several years of early Australian settlement in what is now New South Wales. Arriving in Sydney in 1806, Will is made prisoner of his wife - a common thing to do at the time - and works for his ticket of leave. He encounters Blackwood, a man he knew in London who has been here longer and has his own boat, plying a lucrative trade on the River Hawkesbury where ex-convict settlers are growing food but are otherwise cut-off from the main settlement at Sydney, and begins working for him on the Hawkesbury. It is on his first trip up the river that Will sees a piece of land that captures his heart and imagination. Suddenly, he has dreams - dreams of a future, of the kind of life he could never have in London, with a home of his own.
Land is easy enough to acquire here. After all, no one else has claimed it. There was a simple process: "All a person need do was find a place no one had already taken. Plant a crop, build a hut, call the place Smith's or Flanagan's, and out-stare anyone who said otherwise." (p.121) Will achieves his full pardon several years after arriving, but convincing Sal to move to what he calls Thornhill's Point is harder. Sal wants to return to London; London is the place that has her heart. The one thing she brought from London was "a broken piece of clay roof-tile that she had found in the sand by Pickle Herring Stairs the morning of her last day in London." (p.88-9) Sal cherishes this piece of tile, which acts like a talisman and an anchor to her past. She plans to take it back one day, back where she found it. "The thing was like a promise, that London was still there, on the other side of the world, and she would be there too one day." (p.89) Sal can't, or won't, let go, but she agrees to move to Thornhill's Point and gives Will five years to save enough money to move back to London.
It's when they move to this piece of land that Will's fallen in love with, that trouble starts. Or rather, that Will becomes involved in trouble that's already started. The land may not have fences, houses or neat rows of planted vegetables, but it is still part of the Darug tribe's land. Conflict arises, but Will is not prone to violence and is more terrified of them than anything else. Over time, he comes to realise that they too are farmers and landowners, just with different methods. Still, he's not about to give up his piece of land to them, and his neighbours - among them a lowlife called Smasher Sullivan who keeps an Aboriginal woman chained up in his hut and who has brutal ideas of how to react to Aboriginal thievery - have stronger wills (ha ha) than he can stand up to. The resulting night of violence, terror, cruelty and death is one Will never fully recovers from.
While Grenville doesn't present a Aboriginal perspective in this novel - the story is told fully from Will's point-of-view, in third person, so that we see things in the way he understands them with a shade of omniscient depth overlapping it - it is a story that sympathises, and empathises, with the Aboriginal peoples. It doesn't glamorous or mythologise them (not as far as I can see, anyway), but considering how many times previously the British had "colonised" other lands with equally disastrous consequences, it's pretty hard to fault the Aborigines for their own struggles to understand or welcome the newcomers. People on both sides reached out and sought understanding, but at its heart, The Secret River is about what happens when people don't take the trouble to understand each other, or wilfully shut their minds to learning from others. We see this still in effect today, not just between "white Australia" and the Aboriginals - whose knowledge and wisdom about this great and complex land we continue to ignore while we blindly wreck havoc - but between Palestinians and Israelis, between the religious extreme and the moderates, between upper and lower classes, between management and the people who actually do the work on the "shop floor". The Secret River speaks volumes in more ways than one precisely because we haven't learned anything, we haven't moved on, we haven't found the peace that we all crave.
If my review today seems abnormally long and rambling, even for me, I must apologise: I've been teaching this novel and getting into some of the issues and ideas in it at depth. There's a lot more going on here than I've mentioned, of course, but hopefully I've given you the right kind of encouragement needed to pick up this book. Intelligent, well-written in a rather beautiful, poetic way that manages to maintain Will's simplistic, childlike naiveté, The Secret River opens one of those "secret cupboards" of Australian history and gives a voice to those caught up in things they barely comprehend, in an insightful, engaging way. I loved this book, in which violence comes out of gentleness with a dreamlike haze, as if those early settlers like Will can't quite believe in the magic, the mystery and the mayhem that surrounds them. A must-read for all.
In 1808, when Alexandra Broughton is fourteen, her mother returns from court to the family home with a new husband, a bun in the oven, and new step-si...moreIn 1808, when Alexandra Broughton is fourteen, her mother returns from court to the family home with a new husband, a bun in the oven, and new step-siblings for her children, Simon, Alex and Annie. None of them are used to having their snobby, social-climbing mother at home, but her affair with Gerrard Washburn, Earl of Thorncliffe, has caused King George III - a well-known prude and quite different from his son, Prince George - to expel her from court with the decree that they marry.
The upset to the Broughton children's daily life is soon forgotten - it's hard not to like Lord Thorncliffe, and when baby Meg arrives they're all smitten (except her mother, who lacks motherly love). It's the arrival of Gerrard's two children from his previous marriage, Patrick and Maeve, that change everything for Alex. Maeve is a happy, enthusiastic, loving girl of the same age as Annie - who shares her mother's sense of vanity and ambition - but Patrick is Alex's beloved brother Simon's age, and the two quickly become friends. Stuck in the middle, Alex puts her efforts into being childishly petulant and difficult, resentful that Patrick has come between her and handsome, popular Simon.
Yet she's also drawn to Patrick in ways she barely understands. As Alex matures she puts aside her dislike and resentment towards Patrick and the two become friends, but the friendship is strained by Alex's unrequited feelings for Patrick. Once both Simon and Patrick are of age, they both decide to sign up for the war against Napoleon, despite their family's protestations. Simon uses his medical pre-training from university to help the wounded, while Patrick buys an officer's rank and sees real battle. With the two men she loves most in such danger zones, Alex struggles to sit quietly at home and wait.
Meanwhile, her mother has arranged a marriage for her with a young Scottish lord, Hamish, a preening, vain man who, it readily becomes apparent to the reader, has more of an eye towards pretty young men than he does his affianced bride. Alex was resigning herself to marrying Hamish - a contract that doesn't seem breakable - when Patrick returns from war and everything changes.
Torn was a refreshing change from either your typical "Regency Romance" or the many historical fiction novels set in the era that strive to mimic Pride and Prejudice. Turner has focusses on the historical period by going to historical sources rather than fictional ones, which gives a fresh perspective on the early 19th century (pre-Regency). She also turned the lens of the story onto the Napoleonic War, which I appreciated - Austen never focussed on that, her characters just bought a shiny red uniform and everything was tickety-boo. The descriptions of the hell's of war will resonate with readers because they sound just like the descriptions of the World Wars that we've absorbed, because despite the changes in weaponry, tactics or political context, war is war and what soldiers endure doesn't change all that much.
This is a coming-of-age novel set over the course of several years while Alex is a teenager. While Turner has made efforts to use diction and syntax appropriate to the period, Alex's first-person voice is often a bit contemporary, a bit too modern. It's not that people didn't swear or speak in more relaxed ways, just that some of Alex's phrasing sounded a bit too late-20th-century, and jarred. That aside, it's clear that while certain expectations of young women have changed drastically, the struggles and inner turmoils of adolescence and young love remain unchanged over the centuries. We can change our costumes, our expectations and perspectives as much as we like, but at heart we're no different from people living in any other age.
The novel was a bit slow and uneventful, which I wouldn't have minded except that for much of the book it lacked the tension it needed to propel the narrative - and the reader - forward. The story doesn't pick up until after Simon and Patrick join the war. Much of the first half is made up with establishing Alex's rude behaviour towards Patrick, and their prickly understanding. It's just hard, following the exploits of a not-very-likeable girl going through the pains of adolescence. Perhaps it's that fact, that in the first half of the book, Alex isn't a very sympathetic character - you can sympathise with her resentment and understand her behaviour all too well, but it goes on for too long. Patrick has the charisma to carry the story and keep you reading - there's just something about him, from his moments of casual cruelty to his raw sex appeal, his sense of humour and moments of loving tenderness. He keeps you on your toes, that's for sure, though it's one of my personal hang-ups that I don't like hearing men calling women "bitch", especially when they're in love with them.
This isn't a standalone novel but the start of a series, and the ending, while no cliffhanger, is a prelude to the second book, Inviolate. In fact, I would say that the entire novel (Torn) is a bit of a prelude. It establishes the characters, who drive the story forward, and their dramas, as set-up for where the story will go from here. There is a definite feeling that the second book will have more of a dramatic punch than this one, as the stakes are all out on the table and the way things ended in Torn definitely leave you reeling a bit. (I think we'd all agree by the end that Annie is despicable, shallow and lacking in character.) Alex does make me want to shake her though, especially at the end where she lets Patrick's past mistakes and reputation over-rule everything she knows about him, and instead takes the side of the sister she never respected. What's with that? I could understand Alex's emotions but after the initial shock, where's her head? She's an intelligent girl who shows, time and again, a lack of maturity and understanding of others. I guess she's inherited a bit of her mother's superficial outlook, but it was disappointing and slightly contrived for the sake of drama and tension. I'm on the fence a bit over the ending, and I'm not sure where the prologue and epilogue, told by an elderly Meg who has something important she needs to commit to paper, is going. She's not telling the story, that's for sure, so she must know some painful secret.
Overall, a solid first novel that will appeal to those readers who like a slowly evolving historical fiction story set pre-Regency, populated by familiar characters and narrated by a young, torn heroine who feels all-too human.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.(less)
Elspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is...moreElspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is Jorah, her native American husband, and their children: Mary, Amos, Jesse, Caleb, Emma. Home is a small farm in the middle of nowhere, secluded, isolated, handmade. A small wooden house and two barns for the animals. The children all schooled at home, taught Bible stories by Jorah, but largely ignorant of the real world.
Winter, New York State, 1897. Elspeth returns with gifts for the children, but finds instead carnage. Her children dead, shot. Jorah, killed in their bed. The place cold, frozen over, the barn door blocked by drifts of snow. Only Caleb's body she can't find, but then the boy always slept in the hayloft in the barn. When Elspeth, too, is shot, she doesn't have time to think that the killers have returned before she sinks into unconsciousness, and she doesn't see that it is Caleb, hiding in the pantry with his shotgun, who shot her, thinking that the killers had returned.
Caleb, twelve years old, saw the three men with their red scarves. He spent days alongside his dead brothers and sisters, traumatised and terrified. Now his mother is peppered with shot and he does what he can to help her. When she's recovered enough to move, the two set out on a journey over the harsh winter landscape to the town of Watersbridge to find the three men and exact revenge.
The town is an equally harsh place, where Caleb is suddenly thrust into an adult world of violence and depravity, and Elspeth must face up to her failings as a mother - and her sins as a midwife. Now is the time to decide who they each are, boy and mother, who they are loyal to, and whether they can forgive - and earn forgiveness.
I came very close to loving this book. There were a few times when I did love it, but then the feeling slipped away from me and I was left enjoying it a great deal, but not quite in love. For a debut novel, it's a fine achievement, bold and strong and brave, and also subtle and humane. I wasn't quite enamoured of the prose, which often felt like a hand pressed against my chest, exerting slight pressure to make me keep my distance. As much as I wanted to really connect with the characters and immerse myself in their story, that invisible pressure ensured an element of detachment that I didn't want.
Granted, the sensation did fit in very nicely with the story, the tone and the atmosphere. This is a cold story. Look at the cover; now feel that in your bones. Scott does an excellent job of capturing that winter chill, the ice and snow and freezing winds, and lets it permeate the characters, their emotions, their decisions. This is not a story that could have taken place in warmer, sunnier months. (Or rather, it would have been a completely different, less captivating story.) Winter itself becomes a third wheel to Elspeth and Caleb's journey, a constant presence - and a constant threat.
The dangers that the weather pose, that unpredictable natural element, compounds the dangers in Watersbridge. Elspeth, disguised as a man, gets a job on the river, cutting and hauling large blocks of ice which are then stacked in a tower in the icehouse. It's a very dangerous job, as she witnesses. Caleb finds himself at the disreputable Elm Inn, a brothel, bar and gaming hell, and ends up with a job sweeping the floors and washing sheets - expecting at any moment for the three killers to walk in, as it's their kind of place. Whenever a fight breaks out and there are gunshots, or Ethan the doorman forcibly ejects a man from a woman's room, they use the phrase, "Better get the doctor." Code for: dump the body in the snow outside, it'll be taken care of.
The Elm Inn is run by London White, a fastidious man who relates to young Caleb how he took what he wanted through murder and theft. A dangerous, possessive man who'd like to raise Caleb in his world. But it is at the Elm Inn that Caleb encounters Martin Shane, who seems shocked to see Caleb - as if he knows him, or recognises him.
It is clear from early on that there is something odd about Elspeth's children. Something that doesn't add up. Elspeth herself isn't the motherly figure you expect her to be when you start reading. She's only maternal up to a point, as if her motherly instincts have a use-by date. There's little depth of connection between her and Caleb, and neither of them is at all sure that the other won't just leave them. As much as this story is a coming-of-age story for Caleb, it's even more of one for Elspeth.
Thematically, and regardless of the weather or location, this is a "Wild West" story. A classic Western, in the American sense. Murder, revenge, a lawless town run by a few powerful men, brawls and violence and homophobia abound. Just remove the typical dry desert-like setting, and replace it with an equally cruel, ice-cold one. The ending fits in nicely with this, and overall it's a delight - a fascinating delight - to read a Western so perfectly removed from it's namesake, the American West, and instead woven so neatly into the wild, cold winter of the north-east. It makes it less your typical "historical fiction" novel and more of a wild-card. It doesn't follow the usual historical fiction trajectory: it's all Western. This sense seeps into you fairly quickly, and really adds to the tension of reading about a vulnerable woman and a small boy on such a perilous mission in this harsh man's world.
Like I said, there was much to love here. As harsh and uncompromising as the landscape, yet like the land, there are slim veins of more positive elements visible: love, forgiveness, family, the bond between mother and child, redemption, hope. The Western tropes and the winter cold add to the disconnect from the main characters - I couldn't always understand Elspeth or her motivations, because you never get a chance to - but as a whole, the story is rather brilliant.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Playing St Barbara takes us right into the struggles, desires and secrets of the Sweeney family in a harsh landscape: the coal mines of Pennsylvania f...morePlaying St Barbara takes us right into the struggles, desires and secrets of the Sweeney family in a harsh landscape: the coal mines of Pennsylvania from 1929 to 1941. Finbar Sweeney is an Irish coal miner with a foul tongue, a talent for baseball and a mean streak that manifests into physical violence against his wife, Clare, and sometimes even his daughters. Norah, Deidre and Katie. Clare has buried three infant sons already and lives in dread of bearing a healthy, thriving boy; or rather, she lives in dread of having a son who will one day turn into a man just like his father. She buries her German heritage, even though she's more American than Fin is, having been born there, but secretly teaches her daughters the language.
Clare wants nothing so much as to see her girls go on to a better place than the Hive, the dirty, impoverished cottages in the coal mining town, kept separate from their betters, the "Upperhillers", the wives and families of the men who run and supervise the mines. But breaking out of the cycle of poverty is one thing; breaking away from the domineering presence of their father is something else altogether. While Clare wants the best for her daughters, they in turn want to protect their mother and see her happy and free, for perhaps the first time in her life. But can Clare break the habits that have been beaten into her, and forge her own way?
Szczepanski brings life on the edge of a dangerous and filthy coal mine to life in Playing St Barbara, a tense, often harrowing account of life - for women especially - in a harsh and unforgiving world. It's a world that Szczepanski has brought vividly to life through her descriptions and characters. I felt the coal dust in my pores and the stifling repression of poverty, classism, racism and sexism. The fear and uncertainty, but also the love and grieving, the perseverance and stoicism and quiet burning strength of these women.
Each of them - Deidre first, then Katie and lastly Norah, when she's twenty-nine - play the lead role of St. Barbara in the annual St Barbara festivities play. Saint Barbara was a young woman living centuries ago in Turkey, whose father, Dioscorus, was a "wealthy pagan" and "very protective of his daughter. He built her a tall tower, so the world's evils would not harm her." While he was away travelling, a priest converted Barbara to Christianity and she "ordered the builders to add a third window to her bathhouse, symbolizing the Holy Trinity." Her father, returning, was furious, and when she refused to recant her new religion before the provincial ruler, she was sentenced to death by beheading. Her father requested "permission to carry out the execution himself." But after he beheaded her in the forest, an angel appeared, lifting her body and taking it away.
Barbara is honored as the patron saint of miners because she experienced an untimely end and was buried by an angel deep inside the earth. It is customary to place a picture or statue of St Barbara, holding a sword and standing beside a tower, at the entrance to a mine. Pit workers who escape after explosions and roof falls often tell stories of a bright light leading them to safety. [from Katie's prize-winning essay]
Against the menacing backdrop of terrorising Ku Klux Klan, who burn crosses and destroy people's vegetable gardens at the merest hint of union organising (which Fin is always at the forefront of), the symbolism of these girls, sacrificed for their father's narrow, iron view of the world and their place in it, carries a stale taste of fear through the entire novel. It's no sure thing, that any of them will get a happy ending, and that makes it all the more nail-biting.
All the girls and women are different. Deidre is the fiery one, the one who, at seventeen, wins the role of playing St Barbara even though she's from The Hive, and a Sweeney to boot. The play is being organised and directed by a woman they call The Queen - Beatrice Finch, the wife of the mine superintendent. But then she meets Billy McKenna, a young, red-haired cossack (a policeman), who is, in Fin's eyes, enemy number 1. She gets a belting from her father just for looking at him in church, but she's not easily repressed, and she's the first of the three girls to seek her own path, with the help of her mother and her mother's cousin Trudy, a single woman living in Pittsburgh where she works in the Heinz test kitchen and provides a willing escape route - and much-needed funds to get there.
Katie is the youngest sister and the scholarly, smart one who was moved up in school. She wants to be a teacher, and is contemplating going to a convent to become one. It costs two hundred dollars, which they don't have, and a friend who went but left after just a few months tells her how horrible it is. While cousin Trudy and her church's congregation work to raise the money for her admission, Katie lets herself be seduced by her handsome boyfriend, Jack. But when Jack gets caught up in Fin's new union plans, things go from bad to worse and Katie, like Deidre, needs an escape from The Hive and Uniontown.
Katie studied the garish face in the mirror. The girl beneath the pancake was no longer the Katie who nearly fainted with delight when the cast list was posted. Who calmly delivered the high school valedictory speech. Who sat for an hour in Fr. Kovacs' tiny parlor, patiently answering questions about her vocation. Without warning, Tina had vanished, taking that Katie with her.
Who, then, was this painted-up person left behind? This brazen stranger eager to shed her clothes in a coke oven? The pageant's audience surely would see through the pancake and satin. How could a girl of questionable virtue and dubious vocation convincingly play a saint? [p.175]
Norah, the eldest, was "going steady" with Paul, a lovely young man with a gift for mechanics. But the years kept passing and still they never married, until finally she sent him on his way. Clare is upset and believes Norah won't marry because she feels protective of her mother, and needs to look out for her and help her around the house. She believes that if she tells Norah the secret of her dead baby brothers and the sin she committed to ensure she'd have no more babies, Norah will finally leave her. But nothing is that simple, and it takes more than the airing of old grief to dislocate Norah from her childhood home. Instead, she finds herself a new job and a new title: a "career girl", with a taste for fine clothes and accessories. When there's a collapse in the coal mine and it looks, for a moment, like Fin hasn't survived, everything shifts for Clare and Norah, and in a way, they each wake up to the sad truths of their lives and what they've endured, and what they're wasting.
Clare is the one who carries the novel, and the common thread through all the stories. She is the broken woman, a shadow of who she might have been had circumstances been different. But I didn't find her pitiable. She carries with her a quiet, stoic dignity that has, perhaps, been forged in the fire of Fin's abuse. And it's easy to sympathise - and empathise - with her feelings towards her dead sons, babies that she loved and yet feared - and feared for. She is the character you most want to rescue, who frustrates with her inability to change the course of her life. If you want to understand why women put up with domestic abuse, Clare will give great insight. Szczepanski handles it with tenderness and subtlety; the reasons come through without any heavy-handed telling, and that makes it all the more heart-breaking.
I never did quite understand the Ku Klux Klan - I don't know much about them except the general, cross burning and the lynching of black people, for example. I've never read much about them or seen a documentary about them, and Playing St Barbara didn't fill in any gaps in my knowledge on that front. The many attempts to form miners' unions, the strikes and the backdrop of war (the Depression is skipped over between the Katie and Norah stories) adds context and is relevant to the story, but I didn't come away from it with a better understanding. This doesn't really detract from the story, overall, but I do like to learn as I read.
It is a bit slow to get going, and there's a long cast of characters to keep track of (though the author has helpfully provided a list on her website, including nicknames, which I recommend you print and keep handy!), but it rewards perseverance. This is a historical period and setting that you don't read about all that much, and Szczepanski has done an admirable job of bringing it to life in rich detail and investing it with the full range of human experience and emotion. You can easily relate to these people, despite never having experienced what they have: empathy comes easily.
There are beautiful, positive and even happy moments, to balance the sad in this book. The writing and pacing is strong and steady, and it carries the weight of the period. I could easily picture it as a TV series, especially with all the drama (I think because there have been series that are equally dramatic and heavy, from a similar period - mostly British of course). I hated the format of the book, though - this is one of my peculiarities, in that the typeface (font), line spacing, ink and all the rest of the appearance on the pages themselves, have a huge impact on how I read a story, how I connect with it and what I get from it. If this had been printed by Harper, for example, it would have been a more beautiful, poignant reading experience, because they know how to package a book. The cover is great, but the story deserves better treatment, nicer paper, a finer font, to reflect the inner beauty of the Sweeney women in their blackened, grimy world.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Mary was the daughter of a silversmith and then, the wife of one too. Her husband, Pierre Renard, is now more of a businessman than an actual smith; i...moreMary was the daughter of a silversmith and then, the wife of one too. Her husband, Pierre Renard, is now more of a businessman than an actual smith; it's been a long time since he wielded his tools at the bench. Now he panders to the rich and influential, ingratiates himself with them to secure their business, and farms out the work to others, stamping over their mark with his own before presenting the finished product. Pierre is a man of great pretension and affectation, who considers himself a great man and worthy of much - worthy, in particular, of a perfect wife who will give him the perfect son in his own image.
But Mary was never good enough for Pierre, and eleven years as his wife has made her a ghost of herself. The girl she once was has been shrivelled to nothing under his withering gaze, impatience and high expectations - not to mention the times of actual violence. She lives in terror of him now, a fear that manifests in severe sleepwalking, to the point that the whole house must be locked at night, and all the doors within, too.
On this particular night in 1792, though, she is woken from a doze by a knock on the door. The physician, Dr Taylor, arrives with bad tidings: Pierre is dead, mugged perhaps, his possessions - especially his distinctive pocket watch - gone. Mary is left in a state of shock. So long under Pierre's thumb and shadow, his dictatorial word, she's adrift, lost even. She fears that in her sleepwalking she did something, is to blame. Her forthright and indomitable sister, Mallory, scoffs at this and had no love for Pierre - who had many enemies - but she can see Mary is sinking into a bleak depression.
In his will, Pierre left the whole business to his young apprentice, the nephew of the woman he wanted to marry but wasn't granted permission to. He left a codicil for his wife, stating that she should marry his cousin - thankfully, the cousin is dead, but with Mary's life and future held in the hands of Dr Taylor and the other men who stand as trustees, she soon feels pressure to hear the proposals of other men.
Newly returned to London, Alban Steele has come to help his ailing cousin, Jesse, with his trade. Jesse produces work for Pierre Renard, but as he weakens he needs more help. Alban arrives the same night Pierre's body is discovered, and the news reminds him of the time he saw Mary, before she was married, an image of her that has stuck with him all these years.
Also affected by the death of Pierre is Joanna, a lady's maid for a young newly-wed, Harriet Chichester, who married her for her family's wealth. The Chichesters had commissioned a set of silverware from Renard, and Joanna had also made a request of him: a locket to hold a piece of her beloved's hair. Over the following months, Joanna uncovers a secret that sheds new light on Pierre's death and puts her in a difficult position.
Watching it all from the shadows is the nightwatchman, Digby, a red-haired man who resents the rich and the life he wasn't born to, who nevertheless manages to be where he is needed and who sees much, and understands more.
Set during the reign of Mad King George (George III), The Silversmith's Wife takes place in a London stripped bare of its glamour, riches and beauty. This is a dark, minimalist, almost bleak London, the London of the tradespeople, domestic servants and others who work hard in this slippery world where death is a matter of fact and life. There's no sign of the swelling French Revolution that would have started four years before, or of life beyond the sphere of the characters of this story. You'd easily forget that there was a world beyond Bond Street or the shadows of Berkeley Square. This creates a tense, brooding atmosphere that serves the story well, giving it the sense that you're getting a glimpse into the "real" world of London in the late 18th century.
Tobin's debut novel begins with a murder but, since there was no forensic science available and even post-mortems were avoided, there is no actual investigation into the death. Digby, the watchman, is asked by a gentleman, Maynard, to keep his eyes and ears open, but Digby is under no real obligation to do anything. No one wonders very much over the death, assuming it to be a mugging turned mortally violent. Yet the lingering tension over a death unsolved remains, and is ever-present, adding an unsettling sense of unpredictability to the story. It's as if, even though everyone has pretty much forgotten the matter, the fact that there's a murderer out there - for whatever unknown reason - adds a dark sense of menace to this London. The characters don't pick up on it - for them, that kind of threat and menace is probably a fact of life. But it's enough to keep the reader reading.
Sadly, not much else about this story kept this reader reading. I do love a good historical fiction novel, but this one left me feeling distanced, even a bit alienated, and lacking in sympathy. It's a slow read and not a whole lot happens, yet it's also long. It's rich with historical detail, but such details seem like too much padding. For a debut novel, it's competent, and Tobin has much potential, but her actual writing lacked fluidity and an organic naturalness that makes for a smooth, effortless immersion in another world. Her narrative voice does a good job of feeling historical - it has a syntax and diction that echoes contemporary novels, making it feel less modern and more genuine. But it's not quite polished, hasn't yet hit its stride, and reads too sluggishly.
Combine a slow, uneventful plot with dour, unlikeable characters and a sluggish writing style, and you get a story that loses its lively promise under the weight of historical accuracy. It was an interesting story, but not a very enjoyable or captivating one. I wasn't engrossed, only mildly curious. And after the slow, heavy-footed hobble to the finish, the climax was decidedly anti-climactic, serving only to vindicate (mildly) and answer the question that got us reading in the first place: who killed Pierre and why?
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Victoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and...moreVictoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and sees a monster. The scars from the fire cover her neck, and her red hair is falling out. She can barely walk, reduced to a clumsy shuffle because of scar tissue joining her thighs together. Her aunts, Daisy and Lilac, whisked her away not long after the fire to this house in the country, where they feed her detestable liver custard and tapioca. Her only company is the young Chinese servant girl, Mah, who rescued her from the fire at her parents' house.
Orphaned after her parents and baby brother, Willy, die when their ship sinks en route back from South Africa, Blue is kept in ignorance of the state of her family's affairs. Her father was the manager for her grandfather's shoe factory, Laurence Shoes, and she assumes their house burned down in the fire, but no one actually talks to her, not even her Uncle Herbert, who sends her chocolates and some money for her birthday.
With the ten pounds from her uncle, Blue sneaks out at night to see the circus that just arrived in town. The Magnifico Family Circus is a one-night-only event, and Blue enjoys seeing through the trickery in the sideshow tents and trying to guess how things were done. But it's in the Big Top that she really enjoys herself, watching the acrobatic displays and the elephant, called the Queen of Sheba. Led by the indomitable and very talented Madame - of no known name or age - the Magnifico Family Circus is a small group of skilled performers who take on several roles to make the circus feel bigger and more glamorous. Aside from Madame, the fortune-teller, there's Mrs Olsen, her daughter Gertrude and her young son Ginger, who are trapeze artists, and handsome young Fred who plays the bearded lady and many other roles. And there's the middle-aged brothers, Ebenezer and Ephraim, who play the Ring Master and the clown, respectively, among other things, and manage the heavy work.
Her aunts arrive to take her home during the intermission, and lock her in her bedroom for the rest of the night. It is when the house is quiet and everyone asleep - everyone but Blue, who tries not to panic at the thought of being trapped in the room - that there's a tap at her window. The circus has come to break her free, rescue her and hide her in plain sight. Madame, in her inscrutable way, has knowledge that Blue is being poisoned with arsenic - the hair loss is a sure sign. She wagers Blue has barely weeks left to live, and even though Blue resists the idea that her aunts could be trying to kill her, it starts to make a strange sort of sense. Especially when, from the very next day, she stops vomiting and starts feeling better.
It is a long road to full recovery for Blue, though, and in the meantime she's a runaway with the police looking for her. The circus is skilled at hiding people in plain sight, though, and soon Blue is masquerading as a boy when she's not performing as a harem dancer or a mermaid called Belle. Over the next few years Blue finds a new home in the circus, and a new family among the eclectic Magnifico family. Her only guiding thought is to wait till she's of age and can be financially and legally independent; until then, she plans to stay with the circus.
But Blue has no control over the way of the world, or the effect the Depression will indirectly have on the circus and the fate of her new family. It is at the small rural town of Gibber's Creek in 1935 that their luck runs out and Blue's carefree days of performing in a circus come to an end. It is there they meet Miss Matilda, owner of Drinkwater Station, and her husband who runs the nearby wireless factory. It is at Drinkwater that the circus's real secrets come to light and Blue realises just how clever they all are at multiple duplicity. And it is at Drinkwater that a murder and a murderer catches up with the circus.
While The Road to Gundagai is the third book in the Matilda Saga, it - and all the others (there are more to come too) - can each be read as a stand-alone book. The first book, A Waltz for Matilda, introduces readers to Miss Matilda as a child in 1894 and ends in 1915; the second, The Girl From Snowy River, is about Flinty McAlpine in 1919 till 1926; her brothers appear in Gundagai, as does Matilda from the first book. The next book will be set in 1942, during World War II, and the fifth in 1969.
But this is Blue's story, and I have to say right here, right now, that it's an excellent, wonderful, exciting, perfectly-written story that's easily one of the best teen novels I've ever read, and one of the best books I've ever read, too. I can't recommend this book highly enough, I am utterly in love with it and I know I would have loved it as a teenager as well.
Jackie French was previously known to me as a picture book author - her Diary of a Wombat is a modern-day Australian classic. But I had no idea until recently that she also wrote fiction, primarily for Young Adults and older children. I sought out her books one day and found a whole section in Petrarch's in Launceston, a bit tucked away sadly but completely devoted to Jackie French novels. They didn't have A Waltz for Matilda or The Girl From Snowy River, but I had already planned on reading this and was thrilled to find they had a few copies. I mean, who doesn't love circus stories? Stories about orphan girls being poisoned by wicked aunts? Stories about elephants who love to steal jewellery and have their own teddy bear? Stories about adventure and young love, mystery and treachery and family secrets? The Road to Gundagai has it all, and what's even better is that the writing is so ... flawless.
It's extremely rare for me - in my jaded, too-often-cynical 30s - to find a book, especially a YA novel, that doesn't annoy me in some small way, or feel a bit simplistic or unpolished or with weak world-building or characterisation or plotting. There's almost always something that stops me from really, truly loving a YA novel. One of the reasons why French's writing reads with such confidence and vitality and realism, is that she's practiced and experienced enough to know her own writing style and be comfortable in it: there's no pretensions here, no awkward turns-of-phrase in an attempt to be original, and no present tense! French is skilled at bringing her characters to life with just the right amount of detail, and the pacing is swift and sure so that you never get bored nor feel rushed. Like many of the characters, the story itself is full of charisma. It's completely absorbing and engaging, and just beautiful to read.
The story is also rich in period details, and setting. There is a handy appendix at the back for younger readers that gives concise and interesting explanations and insight into many of the things in the book, but if you already have the context and a general understanding of the Depression you can really revel in the fine details of life in a circus in Australia during the 1930s. Throughout the story, there's the running theme of what a circus - or any kind of theatrical performance - can bring people living in poverty, who spend what they can for a bit of glitter, a gasp and a laugh.
'And tomorrow, Gertrude will ride Sheba with Belle through the shanties before Ebenezer takes her down to the sea for her swim.' Gertrude's face appeared at the caravan door. She gave them all a swift angry look. 'I practise in the mornings.' 'One practice cut short will do no harm. You will be Gloria and Belle will be a dancer.' Madame shook her head. 'The mermaid would please them more, but a mermaid on an elephant is not believable. Best they keep the image from tonight. But wear the jewels. They deserve another sight of jewels. The children will tell their children.' Madame stared into the darkness. Her voice was soft. 'When they talk about these years they will not say, "We shivered in the wind with sacking walls, we ate stale bread and drank buttermilk," but, "One night I saw a fairy fly across a tent. I saw a mermaid swim, and wave her tail at me."' [p.158]
Balancing the dark tones is light and laughter, warmth and friendship. Blue finds love, too, and so does the reader: if you don't fall in love with Sheba the elephant, I shall be very much surprised. It should come as no surprise, of course, that French can write an elephant character so damn well.
Enriched with themes of economics and politics, class divides and gender imbalance, the story of Blue growing, maturing and really coming into her own is an absolute delight. She becomes a confident young woman with skills only the circus could have taught her - along with the nurturing of her circus family. There are moments of sadness and tears, and moments of bravery and resilience. Through it all, Blue is a strong heroine and protagonist you will come to love, along with all the other characters, so diverse and full of surprises. If I haven't won you over yet and made you eager to pick up this wonderful, wonderful book and read it today, then that's a lack in me and not in Jackie French's skill as a storyteller. For myself, I plan to read her entire backlist of novels and discover more gems.(less)