Sarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and,...moreSarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and, sometimes, death, but growing up in the 80s, Sarah knows it's home and doesn't think of the future much. Her older brother Cameron will inherit, according to the family patriarch, her grandfather Angus Gordon. Angus has inherited his own father's determination and arrogance, and doesn't see his own son, Sarah's father Ronald, a worthy successor. But Angus is a meddler, and when he hires Anthony - first as a jackaroo and later as station manager - he already plans for him and Sarah to marry, to keep it all in the family.
And then tragedy strikes: young Cameron is killed while riding his horse, and Sarah learns he was only her half-brother. Her mother, Sue, had an affair with a wool grader. It doesn't change her love for Cameron, but her mother seems to hate her and she feels like even her grandfather considers her second-best and not worthy of Wangallon. Angus is determined to pass the station down to a Gordon, and her brother wasn't even a real Gordon! Having finished high school, Sarah leaves Wangallon for life in Sydney as a photographer, where she meets Jeremy, a yuppy accountant who offers her a very different way of life.
But her grandfather calls her back to the station time and again, even after her parents pack up and move to the Gold Coast. It's just Angus and Anthony on Wangallon now, and Angus lays out his plans for Sarah: she can inherit Wangallon, but she has to move back to the land and marry Anthony. His heavy-handed, dictatorial approach only alienates her further, and Sarah's convinced Anthony knows all about it and doesn't trust her attraction to him, or his to her. She doesn't know her own heart, and baulks at the idea of moving back to Wangallon if only because her grandfather demands it. It will take more than a directive from Angus to clear up the doubt and anguish in Sarah's heart.
Alongside Sarah's story, which takes place between the years 1982 and 1987, is the story of Wangallon Homestead itself, which is the story of her great-grandfather, Hamish Gordon. Having left Scotland in anger with his younger brother Charlie following in 1854, he ends up in the gold fields of Victoria, struggling to strike it rich. After his brother dies, Hamish embarks on a new plan: to steal a lot of sheep (a common enough occurrence), establish his own farm and become a big landowner. His plan includes marrying Rose, a young woman in the nearby small town in New South Wales, but their marriage is a cold, unfriendly one and they never see eye-to-eye. It is a hard life, in rural Australia in the mid-1800s, and it takes its toll on Rose, while Hamish has his eye on a girl he saw once in Sydney.
It is Rose's story as much as it is Hamish's and Sarah's, a story about the deep connections forged between individuals and the unique Australian land, shaped by humans but never conquered. It is a story about love and loyalty, about belonging, identity, and following the heart.
It is partly my own fault that I struggled with this novel, and partly the novel's fault for being a bit sluggish. I had just arrived back in Australia after nearly eight years overseas, and was eager to try a Rural Romance. I'd seen plenty of them reviewed on other blogs, and they have very distinctive covers - covers just like this one. And when I read the blurb, I read it through a "rural romance" lens, and ended up misinterpreting it. This is a case of a book misrepresenting itself, and it all comes down to the cover. Covers not only serve to catch the eye; they also give browsers a quick, instant genre label. Every genre has its own style, and while the styles change over the decades, and there's room for movement within a style, they still scream "ROMANCE!" or "FANTASY!" or "YA!" or "MYSTERY-THRILLER!" and so on. Even literary, or general fiction, books abide by this, and you'll have noticed that books that publishers think will appeal more to women readers have covers that they think will appeal more to women (the downside being that men will never pick up the book). So this book has a Rural Romance cover, and that's what I thought I was getting: a romance, set in rural Australia.
The setting is correct, but this isn't a romance. It's fiction, a blend of contemporary and historical. It's also long - too long - and rather slow. While Alexander successfully conjures up the setting, especially Australia in the 1860s, the 1980s was too often a messy, vague picture in my head. I found the writing to be a bit weak at times, especially in Sarah's chapters. The story was much stronger in the 1860s setting, for some reason. I was much more invested in Hamish and Rose's story than I was in Sarah's. Hamish was a bit of a scary character, and I totally felt for Rose, who was separated from her daughter Elizabeth and who struggled with loneliness and depression on Wangallon Homestead. Hers is a tragic story, but while Hamish's side of the story helped explain Angus, the son he had when he was rather old, Rose's story doesn't really add anything to Sarah's.
I never came to like Sarah very much. In fact, I never really understood her. She was one of those frustratingly stubborn heroines who would get the bit between the teeth and that was it. There was no chemistry between her and Jeremy, and none between her and Anthony. Anthony was one of the most likeable characters in the whole story, if perhaps the only likeable character. But he's not very well developed, there isn't much to his character aside from being a good station manager.
There's quite a lot going on in this story, which concentrates around family dynamics, the mistakes of the past and lost love. Sue, Sarah's grumpy mother, has a fair bit in common with Rose, but aside from the characters feeling reasonably realistic and true to life, I never felt particularly empathetic with any of them. I even had trouble remembering some of their names - and there aren't many characters to remember. Sarah's trip to Scotland towards the end of the novel was a bit messy and slipped into cliché-land, and didn't add much to Sarah's character at all. I found her hollow and confusing. I never understood what her problem was, really, because she was never able to reflect on it, articulate it or show it. It was all rather frustrating.
Where the story is strongest is, as I mentioned, in the chapters set in the 1800s, Rose and Hamish's story. It's quite dark at times, and there's a palpable sense of tension and even a brooding kind of threat in the air. Hamish is rather merciless and ruthless and doesn't stop at having people killed to serve his own ends. The period settling is recreated convincingly and realistically. I found it a bit implausible that Angus would be Hamish's son, not because Hamish would be incapable of having a kid in, what, 1901? when he was in his 70s perhaps? But because his wife would have been too old, especially in those days. The dates and ages didn't quite add up, a niggling detail that bothered me throughout. Maybe, instead of the 1980s, Sarah should have been growing up a couple of decades earlier, and Angus born earlier.
While the history of Wangallon and Hamish's story added a bit of depth to Sarah's story, Sarah's story added nothing to Hamish and Rose's story. I found Sarah's story to be slow, long-winded, and rather dull. She's a self-indulgent sort of character, and that's a big put-off for me. For a debut novel, The Bark Cutters is rather ambitious and only half-successful; it doesn't make me inclined to read the next book in the Gordon family saga, A Changing Land - the story of Wangallon is quite interesting, but I've had enough of Sarah. (less)
This finely-researched novel takes place between 1935 and 1944 in Toronto, France and London. Edward Jamieson was in Signals in World War I and fought...moreThis finely-researched novel takes place between 1935 and 1944 in Toronto, France and London. Edward Jamieson was in Signals in World War I and fought at Vimy Ridge; since the war he's suffered from post-traumatic shock disorder - or Shell Shock as they used to call it. He's a quiet, fairly reserved man who keeps things locked inside, though with the help of a particular doctor recommended to him by his friend from the war, Eric, the nightmares have mostly ended. After returning to Toronto he met and married Ann and they had two children, Emily and Alex, born close together. Edward works at the phone company and Ann runs the house and raises the children. They're happy and content.
All that changes when Edward receives an invitation to a memorial ceremony for the battle at Vimy Ridge, France. The invitation not only brings back vivid memories that torment him daily, it also resurrects a past lost love and the equally vivid memories of the passionate affair he had with a Frenchwoman, Helene. He hasn't seen her in years and she never answered his letters, but his decision to go to the ceremony despite the pain of his recollections is partly influenced by his secret desire to see her once again.
Helene is at the ceremony, and in a flash Edward is taken back in time to the happy, passion-filled times spent with her. Even though both are now married and have children, they embark on a week-long affair that, when she learns of it, breaks Ann and nearly destroys her marriage.
There are two parallel sides to this story: war, and marriage. Or pain and love. It's about the people who fight, and the people who are left behind. Both groups are scarred and have much to recover from. The details Tod includes in Edward's flashbacks to WWI are realistic and gruesome, and in the matter-of-fact style - not detached but stripped of emotion - these scenes become even more tragic and awful.
Despite the cold, Edward sweated in his greatcoat. Mud oozed with each step, slowing his pace. His foot slipped. He grabbed at a section of chicken wire attached to the retaining wall to steady himself. A few yards ahead, a pool of water lay in front of a tunnel entrance. While slogging through the water, an explosion ripped the sky, spraying earth and shrapnel. Large clods of dirt stuck to his helmet.
Just inside the tunnel the ground wobbled beneath his feet. Struggling to keep his balance, he realized he was standing on two dead soldiers. He shuddered but kept going, barely able to see in the tunnel's gloom. Panting, he slowed his pace to avoid falling; not one second could be wasted. Outside, the bursting curtain of steel continued its deadly assault.
Contrasted to scenes like the one above are those that are filled with passion and heartache and the weight of a different kind of responsibility: that toward your loved ones, your marriage, your future. Both Edward and Ann must face this kind of responsibility, and make decisions around the kind of future they want to have. The marriage is strained, almost breaks, not once but twice. The second time it is Ann herself who, feeling isolated, lonely, forgotten and unloved by her husband when, during WWII, he becomes involved in Canadian espionage and secrets once again divide them, strays from the commitments she made to Edward and her children. Tod handles the grey areas nicely, and sympathetically explores these flaws in human nature - flaws that, ultimately, speak to our very human need to be loved and to feel alive.
Everything he had been brought up to believe would condemn him for such behaviour, but being with Helene had felt like finding an oasis when he was about to collapse from thirst. Now, looking back, his actions felt like those of a stranger. He felt like his life had unravelled, his careful plans and hard work and dedication lost in a moment of memory.
The years had taught her that marriage grew quiet over time, leaving a hum of comfort and familiarity mixed with bouts of frustration and disinterest. Edward's secrets and disappearances had fostered anger. Anger had obscured her path. With war grinding on and on, she had stopped believing in the sacredness of their lifelong commitment and allowed her moral code to fail. Ann knew she had to stop blaming her husband. One thing was clear: Edward needed her. Perhaps more than she needed him.
Unravelled is solidly written with an eye to historical accuracy and exploring the ups and downs of marriage, but I also found the writing to be a bit pedestrian. At times, in describing simple actions like clearing the table or moving around a room, it was a bit wordy. As in, some actions don't need to be described because they're inherent in the larger action, such as picking something up to move it. Really, though, my main struggle with this was my failure to connect properly, emotionally, with the characters. Tod's background in historical research seems to overshadow her writing in general: characters and their development come across too impersonally, with their feelings and thoughts told to me rather than shown.
I also struggled a bit with the war scenes, not the gory battle scenes but the behind-the-scenes planning and discussion etc. These scenes were a bit stale for me and simply described things; at best they were relevant in how showing how Edward's work was affecting him and thus his marriage, but at worst they seemed lacking in relevance to the overall story. I'm sure they could have been worked in better; it just seemed like I was reading two different stories: one about a couple and their marriage, which was quite interesting; the other about World War I and World War II and Canada's involvement in its successes and failures. I'm quite sure other readers would have felt the two meshed together well, but perhaps because I wasn't able to fully connect with the main characters - they were never quite fleshed out enough for me - I failed to connect with the war scenes.
As far as the historical side is concerned, it would probably help to have a bit of background in it. I found it easy to follow the developments of WWII, at least, because I had studied Canada's involvement in that war in order to teach it to grade 8 students a few years ago. I did find that at least half the time, Tod wasn't quite able to integrate these details into the narrative, choosing instead to simple tell us some basic facts about what was happening. It felt a bit simplistic at times, and reinforced my confusion about the main focus of the novel.
There was plenty to like and enjoy in Unravelled, but sadly the novel - in its parts and as a whole - just didn't quite work for me. I was most engrossed in scenes with Ann and Edward trying to work out their marriage, but even then I didn't feel like it went much farther than the surface of things, no doubt because so much is told to me rather than shown. That made it a disappointing read, overall, despite its merits.
Paris, 1929. Harris Stuyvesant, a big blonde American with a crooked nose and a messy history, has spent the last three years moving around Europe, doing odd jobs and working intermittently as a private investigator. Hired by the uncle and mother of a young American woman who's gone missing, he moves to Paris to begin the search.
Philippa - Pip - Crosby is twenty-two and hasn't been seen or heard from since March; it's now September. She went to France like many of her countrymen, to have a good time away from the family influence and the watchful eyes of her own society back home, and had slid into the Parisian art world as so many do. Working as a model and aspiring actress, Pip Crosby's name comes up in connection to some important and distinguished figures in Surrealist art - like photographer and painter, Man Ray (from America); little mole-like Hyacinthe "Didi" Moreau who makes display boxes of carefully-placed odds and ends, many of them disturbing; and Le Comte Dominic Charmentier, an aristocratic war hero who lost his entire family and now puts his energies into patronising Surrealist artists and managing the Theatre Grand-Guignol, which puts on intensely disturbing, graphic and violent plays with intervals of slapstick comedy in-between.
Stuyvesant finds a surprising ally in a French police inspector, Doucet, who is working on a much larger case of missing people from various countries - mostly women, but some men - who date back to the year before. The deeper Stuyvesant delves into the murky world of gory, shock art, the more the truth slowly seeps in: Pip hasn't flitted off to holiday on some rich guy's yacht. She's dead. With the certainty comes a growing suspicion, encouraged by the finding of some photographs that show women in a state of abject terror. But who took them, and what happened to the women after? The closer Stuyvesant comes to figuring it out, the more his own life is at risk - and those of people he cares deeply about.
I don't often read detective fiction, crime fiction, mystery-suspense novels - I'm never sure what to call them exactly, but all of the above. The generic kind (popular fiction) are too simplistic for me, and I get bored with them very quickly. Not enough character development, or the kind of description that aids in building atmosphere, tension and suspense. My in-laws read them constantly, so I'm always seeing books by writers like Harlan Corben, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, John Sandford, Tess Gerritsen, John Grisham, Vince Flynn, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and so on, lying around their house, but I've never been tempted to pick one up and start reading. I've read one Cornwell book and one Grisham book (for a course at uni, years ago), and wasn't impressed - they're just not for me. But The Bones of Paris is not cast of the same mould, not at all. This is historical fiction, for a start, and it is an atmospheric, highly detailed, very involved and intelligent mystery, one that connects with the repercussions of war, like post-traumatic stress disorder and amputations, and the therapeutic affects (or hypothesis of) shock art. This is brain food, not a by-the-numbers stock thriller or suspense story.
This was my first time reading anything by King, who is the author of the Mary Russell mysteries and many others. The first Harris Stuyvesant book is called Touchstone, set in London, and while The Bones of Paris makes connections with that earlier book - in particular Harris's lover, Sarah Grey, and her brother Captain Bennett Grey - it explains enough that their relationship in 1929 makes sense and continues to evolve, without giving everything away and spoiling the plot of Touchstone. Likewise with Harris himself: we learn a fair bit about him, and yet - in true mystery fashion - you know there's a great deal more that still lies hidden. His character comes through clearly: his pugnacity, or stubbornness, his sense of loyalty, even honour, his conscience and his somewhat clumsy empathetic skills. When we see him through the eyes of Le Comte, or Sarah Grey, or Bennett, we see a man you could dismiss as oafish: too big for slight, genteel Paris, too lumbering to be delicate or subtle, and yet Harris seems perfectly aware of his true state of being, and uses it to his advantage. He has that American quality - it comes through - of not caring what the locals think and just doing his thing regardless of how many feathers he ruffles in the process. He's reliable, determined, but knows when to back down and be a bit more flexible. He's an interesting character, not complex but not as obvious as he seems at first, either. Realistic, and human, and a convincing product of his time and personal history.
The setting is rich and tangible. Paris, fully recovered from World War I - or so it would seem: the scars and cracks of sanity are well hidden. The city is awash in foreigners, artists and writers and the rich making the most of the strong dollar to make the city their own. Stuyvesant predicts a market crash, and thinks Paris would be better off without all the ex-pats, who have altered the city in noticeable ways. Historical figures like Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Man Ray - they litter the narrative, giving the period it's set in solidity and presence, authenticity and that touch of glam. The period details are well researched, right down to Stuyvesant's throwaway thought regarding halitosis - a "condition" that was invented, so to speak, in the 1920s as a way of selling Listerine as something other than a liquid for sterilising surgical implements (prior to this highly successful marketing campaign, no one had any concept of good vs. bad breath - hard to imagine now, I know).
And of course there's Paris itself, a city built of limestone quarried from right underneath it, so that parts of it caved in in the 18th century, leading to an inventive solution. The city took the many bones from an overflowing cemetery that had already been closed (bodies would be thrown into pits and not covered over until full, when a new one would start, rotting freely in the open), and moved them to the mines, using them to make solid walls and foundations for the city. I've been to Paris once before but didn't even know about it; it would be quite the thing to see!
But this visual, of a city practically made of bones, of the beautiful bones of Paris and the empire of Death - it all resounds throughout the story, creating or adding to the growing tension and suspense, and making of the City of Light a city of darkness, of dark alleys and late nights falling down drunk, a city of murder and madness. A city with some complex truths hiding under its pretty surface façade. This idea complements, or is juxtaposed to, the women in Stuyvesant's life, the women who go missing and turn up dead. He spent five nights with Pip Crosby in Nice when she was passing through (he was working at a bar as a bouncer), and never thought to look beneath the surface of her pretty face and bright eyes. Same with Lulu, an amateur night walker with two little kids under the care of their grandmother, who he sleeps with when he first arrives in Paris and who later turns up dead. He never knew she had children, didn't know anything about her. Just saw her face and heard her laugh and thought, Why not? Such is the way the ex-pats treat Paris itself, like a sparkling lady who has much to give but goes no deeper than the stones under one's feet.
That's what I meant by calling this "brain food": a novel that engages and works with your many senses and your mind, and while it is quite a long novel and might be too rich in detail for some readers, it never felt bogged down or slow. It kept its pacing steady until the end, when it becomes nice and taut, and doesn't ever feel monotonous or tedious by the simple delight that there is so much to learn here. I felt like I'd just sat through the most fascinating art history lecture ever. What better way to learn about such things than in the hands of a skilled storyteller? None for my money.
In 1914 Iris Crane, a young nurse from Brisbane, arrives in Paris on a mission from her father: find her fifteen-year-old brother, Tom, and bring him home before he gets killed. Instead, Iris finds herself enlisted by the incredibly charismatic Dr Frances Ivens, who convinces Iris to help her set up a new hospital run entirely by women at Royaumont, an old abandoned abbey north of Paris. Since the last word she'd heard from her brother was that he was going to Amiens, Iris decides it is a good location from which to search for Tom, rather than end up who-knew-where with the Red Cross. But at Royaumont Iris soon finds herself caught up in establishing and running the hospital, working as both administrator and nurse, bearing witness to the atrocities of war.
Sixty years after the war ended, back in Brisbane in 1978, elderly Iris Hogan (nee Crane) receives a letter inviting her back to Royaumont to commemorate the 60th anniversary, where the guest speaker will be her old friend, Violet Heron. The letter dredges up old memories for Iris, who hasn't stayed in contact with anyone she knew from that time, and while she struggles to stay in the present and remember the recent past, she begins to relive her time at Royaumont. Her granddaughter, Grace, an obstetrics doctor, visits her often and is alarmed at the idea of Iris flying to France because of her weak heart.
Grace isn't paying as much attention to her grandmother as she would later wish: she has her own problems, chief among them an inquiry at the hospital after a baby was delivered stillborn, and her own youngest child, Henry, who at three years old suffers from fatigue, is developing a bit slower than his older sisters did, and whose legs sometimes hurt. Her husband, David, also a doctor, wants them to have Henry looked at by a paediatrician, but Grace is reluctant. Part of her knows something is wrong, something she doesn't want to have to face, but she couldn't have known that Henry's condition is connected to a secret Iris has kept for three generations.
In Falling Snow is an absolutely beautiful book, a compelling story that illuminates the hard work of women during the war, the struggle women faced to be recognised for their skills and ability and strength in the workplace - not just in early twentieth century, but in the 70s as well. Both Grace and Iris are connected not just through family ties, but also as mothers, working women, women in the field of health. The novel is a fictionalised chronicle of Royaumont Hospital, which was indeed a field hospital run entirely by women and funded by a Scottish women's group.The women, doctors and nurses and orderlies and kitchen staff and ambulance drivers, came from all over the English-speaking world, and were so successful at running the hospital - where the men were better cared for than at any other field hospital in France - that they were later asked to open a second one, closer to the front.
The details Iris relates about setting up and running the hospital were just as fascinating as the human side of the story. There aren't that many novels written about World War I - the second world war is more popular - and while the perspective is a narrow one, you can still gain an invaluable insight into the realities of the Great War on everyday people. From the villagers struggling to get by to the young black soldiers from French colonies like Senegal and Algeria forced to enlist and were dying for a war they knew nothing about, MacColl brings the period vividly to life.
Likewise, Australia in the 70s, and the field of obstetrics in particular, is realistically captured - I'm always impressed and astounded (and, frankly, intimidated) by how much research authors of historical fiction must have to do to put together a story like this one. Interestingly, it is Grace's experiences as a female doctor at a hospital that created more tension for me than Iris working in a war zone. This was no doubt because I already knew Iris returned home unscathed, while Grace's future was unknown. The dual narratives provided momentum for the story, and due to their interconnectedness, it was easy switching back-and-forth. In some ways, I was more riveted to Grace's story, but her story wouldn't have had any power to move me if it weren't for Iris's recounting of her time at Royaumont. Not just because the two are connected, but because they provide such wonderful contrasts for each other.
The theme of motherhood is at the core of this novel: what makes a woman a mother, the sacrifices that mothers make, the delicate balance of children and career - one often cancelling the other out. Tied into this is the idea of a mother's burden of guilt, the feeling of culpability and fault, and the lengths a mother might go to to protect her child, or provide for them. It is subtly handled, a light touch that shadows the story rather than overtakes it, and it isn't until certain revelations at the end that the full sense of the theme takes shape.
The characters are all fully realised and developed, and live life off the page and in your head and heart. The interesting thing about Iris is the sense that she's not quite a reliable narrator - especially because of her failing mental capabilities but also because the secret she's spent most of her life keeping. She is deft at dissembling and distracting, being both clear and honest with the reader and also gently confounding. She foreshadows but never quite follows up on these statements - especially concerning her friend, Violet Heron, who calls them "the flower birds" because their names combine both flowers and birds. I found this quality to Iris's narrative quite clever; it was subtle and also provided another degree of tension or ambiguity. Iris often lulled me into a straight-forward narrative, never even hinting that she was keeping a secret at all. Without Grace's side of the story, Iris's narrative would have lacked a climax as well as a driving force. With it, her story takes on new, more complex layers of meaning.
In Falling Snow is easily one of my favourite books read this year, a story that has the storytelling power and skill to captivate me, educate me and engage with all my senses. MacColl has delivered not just a wonderful story, but also brought to life the obscure and mostly forgotten efforts of women working to great benefit during the war, lauding their bravery and skills while also never sacrificing the honour due to that oldest profession: motherhood.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
Rome, 1492. Young Carmelina Mangano has fled Venice for the Holy City with nothing but her clothes and a sacred relic in her possession, hoping to be...moreRome, 1492. Young Carmelina Mangano has fled Venice for the Holy City with nothing but her clothes and a sacred relic in her possession, hoping to be taken in by her cousin, Marco Santini, who was once her father's apprentice. Carmelina, too, learnt the skill and craft of fine cooking in her father's kitchen, though as a woman she could never have hoped to make a living from it, only a reasonable marriage. Her cousin is the head chef for a grand lady, Madonna Adriana, who has organised a wedding between her young son, Orsino Orsini, and eighteen-year-old Giulia Farnese, one of the most beautiful girls anyone has ever seen, with golden hair almost down to her toes.
The wedding is being held at the opulent home of Cardinal Borgia, Madonna Adriana's cousin, and Maestro Santini and his cooks have taken over the large kitchens to prepare an amazing feast. Only, when Carmelina arrives, her cousin is nowhere to be found and the kitchen is in chaos. Knowing Marco's addiction to gambling and that he probably won't be back in time to do his job, and knowing that if she can step in and save the day it will increase her chances of getting him to take her in, out of gratitude for saving his job if nothing else, Carmelina takes over and puts together an impressive feast, aided by the recipes she stole from her father before she left Venice.
Upstairs, sweet but slightly vain Giulia is delighted to see that her new husband isn't old and fat like the men so many of her friends and even her sister were married off to, but young and handsome. Unfortunately, she soon learns that the marriage is a sham. It's soul purpose is to put Giulia in the position of accepting Cardinal Borgia's overtures, he who saw her in church and has wanted her ever since.
With the current Pope on his deathbed and the ruthless political manoeuvring amongst the upper clergy in full swing, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, one of the most powerful men and certainly one of the wealthiest, is tipped to be the successor. And because he's a Borgia, he doesn't care about hiding his mistress or using his position to elevate his young sons, cold, calculating eighteen-year-old Cesare and lecherous sixteen-year-old Juan, his father's favourite. But because he's a Borgia, he gives Cesare the task of finding a man to protect his mistress and his young daughter, twelve-year-old Lucrezia. Cesare finds just the right bodyguard in the most unlikeliest of places: a dwarf called Leonello who tracked the killers of a friend of his to the Borgia residence and is about to kill a man when Cesare captures him and offers him a deal that he can hardly refuse. After all, everyone overlooks a dwarf, and with his knife skills he's perfectly placed to ensure Giulia and Lucrezia's safety.
Carmelina, Giulia and Leonello find that to survive in the world of power-hungry, corrupt Rome they will need each other, and every trick they know.
This is my first time reading a Kate Quinn novel, and I must say I'm very impressed. Even though I studied (and have a degree in) European history (from the 1100s to the start of WWI), I really can't remember much about this period of history, the Renaissance, or the Borgias, as famous a family as it is, so it was a delight to delve into their world in such depth and detail and with such a fine balance between entertainment, historical accuracy and sheer excitement.
The story is told from the alternating first-person perspectives of Carmelina, Leonello and Giulia, three very different people from very different backgrounds. I grew fond of each of them and found that, flaws and all, I came to really like them and sympathise with them. Carmelina is described as tall, thin and plain, and her temperament is prickly at best. She takes an instant dislike to Leonello, mostly because he is skilled at sniffing out lies and secrets and sees straight away that she's hiding some biggies - and likes to tease and provoke her with his guesses and innuendoes.
Giulia is, initially, a bit spoiled and naïve and silly, but once she become Rodrigo Borgio's mistress - and she doesn't really have much choice, though she does go to him willingly and enjoys it - she puts her training as a noblewoman to good use and learns how to embrace her title of Giulia le Belle or The Bride of Christ, just two of her nicknames. She is derided by her own family who then turn to her for favours, and the women of Rome scorn her even as they ape her fashions. She has power and the ear - and more - of the Pope, but no real friends, except perhaps Carmelina and Leonello. An unpaid servant and a bodyguard with a sharp-witted tongue? But in a place where no one can be trusted, Giulia takes loyalty and honest opinion where she can find it, and matures into a strong-willed, brave woman who juggles her current position with her more humble dreams for an honest life with her real husband.
Leonello is a direct contrast - indeed, all three lead characters are vastly different and present their own unique, specific perspectives to the story - and a character you will most definitely enjoy reading. He's a very interesting character, just as flawed as the two women and with his own agenda. He puts his search for his friend Anna's brutal murder to the side and takes his job of protecting Giulia seriously - he would never admit it but you can tell he genuinely likes her.
Perhaps it was being introduced to a dwarf, and perhaps it's the style of writing and the story itself, but The Serpent and the Pearl put me in mind of certain Fantasy stories, or a style of Fantasy writing, except that this one isn't fantasy and is based on our own historical records. But it reads like a fantasy novel, in the vein of Jennifer Fallon for example - she came to mind first and foremost because of her Hythrun trilogy (Wolfblade etc.), which also featured a wily, clever dwarf with a smart mouth. Quinn writes Leonello with great understanding and compassion and more than a little pride, and he was one of my favourite characters.
With Carmelina's nose for the scents of Rome and good food and her inventive dishes, and her perspective from the servant's areas, the underbelly of what makes a great city tick is revealed in rich detail. Leonello too provides insight into the seedier, more criminal side of living in Rome, while Giulia necessarily adds the pomp and shine to the façade. Between them, life in Rome and beyond from 1492 to 1494 comes vividly, realistically to life. There's an atmosphere of tension and danger, a hint of unpredictability that raises the stakes, and the kind of fear that goes with secrets and corruption. Yet the story isn't all gloomy or dark. There's beauty too, and the kind of gorgeousness great wealth can provide. With Giulia's silver tongue and Leonello's sharp-witted banter, Quinn provides intelligent conversation and exciting dialogue. Politics and political machinations are woven in, as is the threat of war from France over the territory of Naples, and always at the helm, like a big power-hungry spider holding multiple threads, rests the Pope, controlling it all, granting favours and benedictions or removing titles and wealth. Giulia's troubled yearnings for the life she had dreamed of - to be an honest wife, a loving mother, and all that that entails - finally clash with the Pope's furious will, and something will have to give.
The ending took me somewhat by surprise, mostly because it is a cliffhanger ending and I was so caught up in what was happening that when it suddenly ended, it was like having the chair yanked out from under you. Really, The Serpent and the Pearl mostly introduces us to the key characters, puts the pieces into motion and provides the context and background. The story continues in The Lion and the Rose, which I can imagine is when the story really gets going! Even so, The Serpent and the Pearl is an exciting read, successfully combining historical authenticity and realism with interesting, flawed and sympathetic characters and a gripping story that doesn't sacrifice character development to plot. A fine achievement!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Sri Lanka in the 1920s was a British colony called Ceylon. Already divided along caste and ethnic lines, the British encouraged the divide, raising up...moreSri Lanka in the 1920s was a British colony called Ceylon. Already divided along caste and ethnic lines, the British encouraged the divide, raising up some natives to rule, in small ways, over others. Annalukshmi Kandiah is the eldest daughter of Louisa, who came from one of the oldest Christian Tamil families but who eloped with Murugasu, a man who "had gained notoriety in his village of Jaffna for beheading the Gods in the household shrine during a quarrel with his father, running away to Malaya, and converting to Christianity." [p.4] Louisa, with three daughters in tow, left him and moved back to Colombo where they now live in a small cottage in the wealthy neighbourhood of Cinnamon Gardens. In 1927, at the age of twenty-two, Annalukshmi has acquired a teaching qualification and returned to the girls' Colpetty Mission School, run by her idol and mentor, Miss Amelia Lawton, to teach.
This caused quite the stir, if not an outright scandal, among their circle. Only girls too poor or too ugly to "catch" a husband need stoop to working as a teacher. "They saw it as a deliberate thumbing of her nose at the prospect of marriage. She might as well have joined a convent. They blamed her wilful, careless nature on both parents." [p.4] Not only does Annalukshmi's pursuit of higher education and work cast a negative light on her parents - though no one has a high opinion of her father, anyway - but her actions, her desire to ride a bicycle and her disinterest in marriage will make it harder for her younger sisters, Kumudini and Manohari, to marry. Annalukshmi has the kind of ambition none of them can understand.
Their neighbour is the Mudaliyar Navaratnam, now seventy, who lives in one of the grandest houses in Cinnamon Gardens. A relative on their paternal grandfather's side, he is an honorary uncle to the Kandiah girls as well as being one of the mudaliyars appointed by the British governor of Ceylon - an appointment based on loyalty to the British Empire. An official who listens to petitioners and has a seat of some kind in parliament, the Mudaliyar was raised as a very spoilt boy who never learnt how to deal with conflict or the needs of others. Years ago he exiled his eldest son for getting a servant girl pregnant - not for having sex with her or the child, but for falling in love with her and marrying her in secret. His own will thwarted, he banished Arul, and the girl Pakkiam, to India, granting him a small allowance but making his entire household, from his wife and younger son to all the servants, to never have any contact with him or speak of him again.
Balendran, the Mudaliyar's youngest son, was raised up in Arul's place. The boys had never been very close so Balendran had no problem putting aside thoughts of Arul - not so his mother, Nalamma. Now forty years old, Balendran has been successful in managing the family estate and temple - in fact the family's wealth and position has never been better because of the changes he made - and he long ago married his cousin Sonia, who is half-English, and had a son of his own, Lukshman, now at university in England. But Balendran has never forgotten - or overcome - his first love, Richard Howland, whom he lived with when he himself was a student in Britain. Twenty years have gone by, and suddenly Balendran is faced with the prospect of seeing Richard again, here, in Colombo.
Richard Howland is accompanying the Donoughmore Constitutional Commission to write a research paper on it, but Balendran's father thinks Richard is part of the commission itself, as an advisor to Dr Drummond Shiels, and wants Balendran to use his past connection and influence to get Richard on the Mudaliyar's side, and thus Dr Shiels. Balendran is deeply torn. He longs to see Richard again, yet is afraid to. Homosexuality is of course forbidden in Ceylonese society, and the Mudaliyar - who came to their home in England and knows exactly what they were doing - has Balendran under his thumb not just with the familial obligations that tie son to father, but with the power of his knowledge as well. His wife Sonia is furious because the Mudaliyar is against self-governemnt and universal franchise (giving the vote to the entire population, regardless of gender or caste), and Balendran would be a hypocrite to promote something he doesn't believe in, on his father's behalf.
But Richard isn't an advisor, he has no influence, and without that manipulation hanging over Balendran he is free to focus on rebuilding his own relationship with Richard. It means opening himself up to his own needs and desires once again, being vulnerable and more aware of the lies he lives.
Both Annalukshmi and Balendran are faced with strong opposition to the lifestyle and freedoms they want, and handle it in slightly different ways. For Annalukshmi, it is a time of shedding her youthful naiveté and seeing more clearly her position in Ceylonese society - not just among her own people and class, but in the eyes of her mentor Miss Lawton as well. She must decide what path she will take, for she cannot have marriage and a career. Balendran must face the family's secrets, their locked-away past, and learn for himself just where his loyalties should lie: with his dictatorial father and his dictates born of fear, or with his own heart, his own conscience. As change bears down on the entire colony, and a new era is on the cusp of being born, these two cousins also go through change and growth, and must decide who they will be on the other side.
I read this for a recent book club meeting; it wasn't a novel I'd heard of before and I don't know that it's readily available outside of Canada. The author, Shyam Selvadurai, came to Canada from Sri Lanka when he was nineteen, lives in Toronto, and is himself gay. I found that the character of Balendran, the troubled, gay son of a small-minded, influential man and caught up in the laws of traditional Tamil society which makes honouring the father more important that almost anything else, both refreshing and illuminating. This sounds weird maybe, but I really enjoy reading about homosexual characters, and you just don't get many books that aren't labelled as LGBT fiction, that delve into the lives of LGBT people in such a way (especially historical fiction). It's not like being gay is a new thing - quite the contrary, it's as old as humanity itself - but as a group they're sorely missing from literature. Living in hiding, in fear, in persecution, surely would make not just interesting, intriguing and possibly eye-opening fiction; it would acknowledge the kind of pain Balendran experienced, having to deny a major part of who he is and pretend, fake it, create an illusion at the expense of his own nature. It's not fair to him, it's not fair to Sonia who does actually love her husband, and it's just so sad.
Annalukshmi provided a nice contrast to Balendran, and supplied a glimpse into another oppressive aspect of Ceylonese culture and tradition and laws: the uneasy introduction of feminism and women's rights (or lack thereof). What was especially interesting was how Annalukshmi, who had gained an English education and had, in her way of thinking, moved away from a more traditional Tamil mentality, was not only thwarted in her ambitions by her own society, family, culture and traditions, but by the English themselves. As she learns from her friend Nancy, a low-caste Ceylonese girl who had been orphaned and adopted by Miss Lawton, Miss Lawton herself doesn't think Ceylonese women have the ability or capacity to learn the skills required to be a headmistress - which is Annalukshmi's ambition. While within Ceylon there were so many rules and strictures and laws of tradition that proscribed female behaviour (and everyone's behaviour), the English brought another layer to the picture: that of civilised coloniser who, through a simple education and conversion to Christianity, seeks to "save" the natives and give them a humanity as defined by the British (who wouldn't have acknowledged the Ceylonese any other way) - but never to see them as anything more than the Exotic Other, the civilised savage, a people no more able to rule themselves than they are to handle more complex mental tasks, like running a school.
Annalukshmi goes through quite a process of figuring herself out and deciding what she'll fight for - much as Balendran was, but also different. She's a very relatable character, and it's easy to think of her as a kind of Anne of Green Gables, with her penchant for mischief and disobeying the rules, for striving to be better, for her zest for life. Unwilling to settle, knowing she could never live the life of a sequestered Hindu wife and not interested in being a Christian one either, Annalukshmi does not take the easy road. I can only imagine that her life beyond the book would be a tough one, and it's so tragic to think of what women had to sacrifice - it's always one or the other: family or career, you couldn't have both. It's still like that in so many places, and even in our developed nations, women often end up having to sacrifice their career in order to have a family, especially if they can't afford daycare or a nanny. As someone who greatly values and appreciates the freedoms that I have as a woman today, I love reading about the pioneer women, the women who led the way and fought hard to acquire the vote and other rights: the idea of losing these rights chills me to the bone. So I felt for Annalukshmi, yes I really did.
Many supporting characters have the chance to show their perspectives as well, and shed further light on this society. Take Sonia for example, who was raised English - mostly by her aunt - but still confined by Tamil traditions and laws. In this way she reflects on her marriage to Balendran:
What a difference there was between her expectations and what her marriage had really turned out to be. She belonged, she knew, to that group of women from Europe who had married non-European men as an escape from the strictures of their world, a refusal to conform. What they did not know, could not have known, was that these men, so outcast in Europe and America, were, in their own land, the very thing women like her were trying to escape. This was what she had not been prepared for. Balendran's unquestioning obedience to familial and social dictates, his formality even in their lovemaking, his insistence that they maintain separate bedrooms. [pp.79-80]
Poor Sonia - I wonder whether her marriage would have been a more positive experience had Balendran not been gay, and not had the father that he did.
In the guise of a simple, very human story I came to learn a lot about the British colony of Ceylon during the 1920s - a pivotal time for the island. I can't say I understand everything, and this is just one slice of the island's history, but Selvadurai does a great job of incorporating the historical context and exposition into the story, making it relevant and comprehensible. It is quite complicated, but it was a good beginner's lesson for me and stirred my interest in the topic. Selvadurai manages to show both the negative - or confused - effects of British colonisation on this old, traditional society, as well as the great strides the people had made in adapting to this new world and making the best of it. Some more than others, of course: if you benefit from a new ruler, you're of course most likely to support them.
Cinnamon Gardens begins slowly, but alternating between Annalukshmi and Balendran it soon picks up and as you get your bearings more and understand the place and the era and the mixed-up culture better, it becomes more interesting. I wasn't as impressed with the writing as I was with the story itself. The storytelling was good, but the flow and pacing was a bit awkward, the prose a bit clunky at times. For a second novel it's a solid work and definitely worth reading, but it's not as polished as it could have been. There are clear signs of skill and talent, and Selvadurai created a colonial, faux-British historical setting that felt very authentic and real. There is a lot going on here about being blinded or repressed by tradition, of being true to yourself despite what society thinks, and standing up for yourself. It's a story about the illusions of civilisation, the things we emphasise as being markers of true nobility and civilisation that are, like everything else, constructs and changeable. And it's a story about love: within the family and without, of sacrifice and obligation, and of treading the fine line between tradition, culture, religion and modernism. A fine achievement in historical fiction.(less)