Tag Archives: Historical fiction

Little by Edward Carey: Only in stature

Cover imageEdward Carey’s novel arrived through my letterbox so far in advance of publication that I’d forgotten all about it, only picking it up when I felt the need for something long enough to lose myself in. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little worked a treat, taking me first to eighteenth-century Switzerland then to Revolutionary Paris before its final Baker Street destination.

When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who barely knows what to do with a child but welcomes her help in modelling the organs brought from Berne hospital’s anatomy department. She’s a quick learner, adept at wax modelling, but tiny and unprepossessing with her sharp chin and pointed nose. Their work gains such a reputation that soon Berne’s worthies are commissioning busts of themselves. Marie wonders if she might be paid. When a rather pompous Parisian visits, Marie gains a new name, Little, from this man who will later become her friend. Bailiffs appear on the horizon when Dr Curtius falls out of favour with the hospital, precipitating a move to Paris where they find a billet with a tailor’s widow. Marie ricochets back and forth between Dr Curtius, who conceives an unrequited passion for the widow, and the widow who insists she’s a servant, asking when she will be paid until she’s engaged to teach Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI, a relationship that will end in disgrace. Soon, the bustling business gained from Marie’s work at court will be replaced by the grisly modelling of the Revolution’s victims. The feral boy who once guarded their home will become the Revolution’s chief executioner. Grudges will be borne and scores settled in the worst of ways. When it’s all over Marie is alone, but – sharp and resourceful as ever – she finds her own pragmatic way.

Carey tells his tale through Marie’s distinctive voice, illustrating it with her drawings for which she has a prodigious talent. She’s an engaging narrator who unfolds her blood-soaked, heartrending story with sharp insight and a pleasingly sly wit, leading us through a life begun in poverty which ends as the proprietor of one of London’s most visited attractions. Carey’s writing is as precise as his illustrations, and wonderfully evocative.

Ernst finally halted at a house thinner and smaller than the rest, squeezed in between two bullying neighbouring residences, poor and neglected

Here is a truth: people are very fascinated by themselves

Look at you, the newest children in the overstuffed toyshop!

There’s a touch of the Dickensian about Little – playfully acknowledged in Marie’s professed annoyance with that author’s notetaking close to the end of the book – although the novel that sprung to mind for me was not A Tale of Two Cities but Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet which charts another orphan’s journey through French history. Carey’s novel was an unexpected treat for me. Entertaining, erudite and absorbing: it’s one to add to your Christmas lists.

Blasts from the Past: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

When I was in bookselling I knew that if a rep showed me a book on the Franklin expedition we were likely to be on to a winner. There seems to be an enduring interest in polar exploration – anything on Shackleton or Scott was also likely to be a sure-fire bestseller. There’s an air of romance about it: even though the expeditions were failures, they’re seen as magnificent failures. Andrea Barrett’s dramatic, vividly expressed novel, which follows Zeke Voorhees in his search for the remains of Franklin’s expedition, seemed to me to capture the spirit of the time and its overriding desire to extend the bounds of knowledge, either for its own sake or, in this case, to further secure Britain’s mercantile ambitions through the discovery of a new trading route.

Zeke sets off on his ill-judged voyage in 1855, ten years after Franklin, accompanied by his future brother-in-law Erasmus Darwin Wells, an amateur naturalist. As Zeke’s enthusiasm transforms itself into a lonely despotic command of the voyage, Erasmus becomes more and more uneasy about the outcome of the adventure. When Zeke strikes out on his own, Erasmus has no option but to try to guide the crew of the Narwhal – much depleted by the hardships of facing a winter ill prepared – to safety. On his return, he finds himself estranged from his sister who blames him for leaving Zeke behind, and derided by the public for the failure of his mission. When Zeke does reappear he brings with him two Eskimos, as the indigenous people were then known. Erasmus is at first delighted and then appalled by his plan to stage a lecture tour featuring the Eskimos as exhibits. What follows is heartrending.

Franklin and his crew’s disappearance remained a transfixing mystery for the public with many expeditions launched in search of their remains. In 2014 the Victoria Strait Expedition announced that it had found Erebus, one of the Franklin’s two ships, an announcement confirmed by the Canadian Prime Minster in Parliament.

 What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I’d read one of Carol Birch’s earlier novels years before Jamrach’s Menagerie was published and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t particularly inclined to read more but I have a weakness for novels with a circus or carnival theme – Nights at the Circus, Carter Beats the Devil, Dreamland, Tipping the Velvet to name but a few – so this one snagged my attention with its dramatic rescue of eight-year-old Jaffy from a tiger’s jaws by menagerie owner, Charles Jamrach.

Stricken at what could so nearly have been a tragedy, Jamrach offers Jaffy a job cleaning out the animals’ cages which the boy happily accepts, becoming friends with Tim Liniver and falling in love with Tim’s sister. At the age of sixteen, Jaffy is sent with Tim to the Dutch East Indies aboard a whaling ship to capture a ‘dragon’ for the menagerie. The intrepid pair is successful but when the ‘dragon’ bites one of the crew it’s thrown overboard. The ship is later sunk – struck by a whale – leaving just twelve of the crew alive and stranded in two boats. As the twelve begin to die of thirst and starvation, the survivors are forced to resort to cannibalism. Eventually straws are drawn to decide who will be killed and devoured next. When land is struck, only two are left alive – half-mad with horror and grief.

Birch is a rip-roaring storyteller and this is quite a tale to tell. It’s packed full of vivid description, memorable characters and adventure. I remember racing through this novel one holiday, completely lost in it. Sadly, last year’s Orphans of the Carnival failed to match it for me.

Jaffy’s dramatic rescue is based on an incident in the nineteenth-century East End, now commemorated with a statue in Wapping, when an eight-year-old was indeed rescued from the jaws of a Bengal tiger owned by a Charles Jamrach who ran a menagerie. Sadly the latter part of the book is also based in fact – the dreadful fate of the whaler, Essex, rammed by a sperm whale in 1820.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller (1997)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Ingenious Pain is the example I often cite when talking about the difficulty of following an impressive first novel. It’s a book I didn’t expect to love not being a huge fan of historical fiction but I found myself drawn in and entranced by it. Set in the eighteenth century, straddling the old world of quack shows and superstition and the new world of religious doubt and scientific enquiry, it’s the strange story of James Dyer.

Conceived on an icy night, the result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger, Dyer is an odd child whose inability to feel physical or emotional pain marks him out. When his family are all but wiped out by smallpox his adventures begin. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and, later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. When scandal ruins his practice he joins the race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox. En route he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers give him the gift of pain. From here the road to redemption leads through madness and eventually to a modicum of peace before he dies, aged thirty-three, in a small West Country village.

I was working in Waterstone’s when the novel was published and Andrew Miller was a local author living in Bath, a mixed blessing as any bookseller will quietly tell you. Some authors had a tendency to move their books to the front of the shop, demand to know their sales figures and castigate us for not stocking more of their titles. The epitome of modesty, Miller was the antithesis of that. Sadly, he’s never quiet matched Ingenious Pain for me although Pure came a close second.

That’s it from me this for a few days. H and I are off to explore the delights of Antwerp tomorrow. Back next week

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women

Cover imageHere’s one I’ve been looking forward to ever since I spotted it in the publisher’s catalogue. Helen Dunmore’s new novel, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, who is intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge.

Lizzie’s mother has brought her up to be an independent woman, reflecting her own radical, egalitarian beliefs. Julia is often to be found scratching out pamphlets, sometimes dictated to her by Lizzie’s hopelessly impractical stepfather. Neither of them is fond of Diner whose speculative building plans run counter to their principles but Lizzie conceived a passion for him and was determined to have him. His first wife died in her native France: apart from those barest of bones, he refuses to talk of her but Lucie haunts this marriage.  When Julia dies in childbirth, Lizzie resists Diner’s annoyance, taking her half-brother into the show house that has become their home. Passion is cooling and Lizzie is unsettled by Diner’s jealous need to know her whereabouts. As the news from France finds its way across the Channel, Diner’s plans are undermined – no one wants to sink their capital in a house, no matter how splendid, with the possibility of war on the horizon. Mired in debt, he decides they must make their escape and a revelation is made.

Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. It can be no coincidence that much of the action takes place in 1792, the year in which Mary Wollstonecraft published her seminal work, A Vindication of the Right of Women. As ever Dunmore’s writing is striking – ‘Do you really think that the storm in France will not blow my hat off?’ asks Diner; ‘Memory. What was that to set against the worms?’ reflects Lizzie in her grief – and her characters beautifully observed. She expertly pulls taut the tension that runs through this marriage between a woman used to freedom and a man who assumes it’s his right to control her. Not Dunmore at her absolute best – the sensuous prose of Talking to the Dead and the sharpness of Exposure remain my favourites – but an engrossing novel, made all the more vivid for me by its setting, a mere ten-minute train ride from where I live. I’ve often walked along the Royal York Crescent on which Diner’s vision is based. It’ll be hard to do that now without thinking of Lizzie, her half-brother wrapped tightly in her shawl, as she makes her way up onto the Downs.

It’s such a sadness to know that this will be Dunmore’s last novel. She has quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she is gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

The Patriots by Sana Krasikov: Here we go again…

Cover imageThose much over-used epithets ‘epic’, ‘sweeping’ and ‘saga’ are useful signals when they crop up in press releases, semaphoring that the book in question is probably not for me. To be fair, they’re not words used to describe Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots but just for once they seem appropriate. This doorstopper of a novel, apparently loosely based on a true story, explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008.

Florence is an idealistic young woman, attracted by the equality she thinks socialism offers during the Depression when American women are being shown the way back into the kitchen after their wartime efforts. Bright and numerate, she finds a job working for Amtorg, who promote trade between America and Russia, where she falls in love with Sergey. When she decides to turn her back on her comfortable Jewish family and travel to Russia after he goes home, she knows that it’s not just idealism that is carrying her off on this perilous journey. On board ship she meets Essie with whom she forges a friendship. When her pursuit of Sergey proves fruitless, Florence settles herself in Moscow where she talks her way into a job with the Soviet State Bank. She meets Essie again, then Leon a sassy fellow American working for the Soviet news agency with whom she becomes both romantically and professionally involved, working together as translators for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Life is hard but Florence and Leon remain committed to the cause until anti-Semitism creeps in; their past work – once lauded – is now used against them. With a child to protect, Florence finds herself cooperating with the authorities in ways she could never have imagined, and then betrayed. Many years later, the Cold War long over, her son is working as a liaison officer for an American oil company. His frequent visits to Russia enable him to keep an eye on his son’s plans to be ‘a cowboy on the frontiers of private enterprise’. When Julian questions the judgement of his own Russian contacts it becomes clear that the USSR may be long gone but the old ways are alive and well.

Krasikov unfolds her story through two narrative strands spanning more than seventy years, shifting her perspective backwards and forwards between Florence and Julian. It’s an ambitious structure – all too easy to lose control of it in such a long novel but Krasikov deftly pulls it off although Julian’s first person narrative is less absorbing than Florence’s. The tension between Florence’s apparently obdurate idealism and Julian’s cynical pragmatism is well drawn, and its resolution satisfying. Krasikov’s depiction of the USSR under Stalin with its labyrinthine surveillance systems in which no one can be trusted, even the closest of friends, is both convincing and chilling. We’d all like to think we’d be the ones to stand firm, steer well clear of betrayal, but who knows what any of us would do in such circumstances. Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.

The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott: A rollicking tale of thieves and whores

Jake Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, was published way back in 1999. I was a huge fan: he summoned up London’s underworld in prose as sharp as a ‘60s mobster’s suit, expertly blending fact with fiction. A hard act to follow, then, and sorry to say Arnott’s never quite matched it for me but I’ve stuck with him, ever hopeful, and The Fatal Tree proves that fidelity can win out. It’s a triumph – a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash, gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang.

In 1726 Edgeworth Bess is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Billy Archer has petitioned Mr Applebee, a publisher of confessions popular at public hangings, to commission him to tell Bess’ story. Bess began life in the home of a noble family – the daughter of a servant, thrown out when she’s caught in bed with their son. With only the guinea he’s given her, she finds her way to London, easy meat for the city’s madams eager for fresh faces. Punk Alice saves her from the worst of them, installing her in Mother Breedlove’s bawdy academy where she learns how to please both the punters and herself. Smart and sassy, she’s soon at home amongst the denizens of Romeville, a buttock-and-file who whores and picks pockets, attracting the attention of both Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed Thief-taker General, and Jack Sheppard, a carpenter’s apprentice who puts his skills to use as an expert burglar. Bess and Jack fall for each other hard. Jack’s strutting arrogance will trip him up badly but his jail-breaking skills will make him a legend while Bess will need her sharp-as-a-tack wits to get him and herself out of trouble, all under the gaze of Wild who holds Romeville in his grubby sway. Alongside Bess’ story, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion.

Arnott alternates Bess’ confession, told in her own words with Billy’s letters to Applebee. Written in flash, Bess’ sections will have you frequently diving into the glossary at first but, rather like The Wire, once you have your ear in, so to speak, her narrative is easy to follow. Arnott keeps the tension nicely taut with cliff-hangers and foreshadowing throughout, liberally lacing his story with both the salaciousness promised in Billy’s first letter and a fair dose of humour. The period detail is vivid, descriptions of the thieves’ dens nicely lurid, but Arnott takes care not to get too caught up in what has clearly been meticulous research, rounding out his characters so that they leap off the page. John Gay wanders through Billy’s narrative, a frequent acquaintance, keeping his ear to the ground. There are echoes of our own times both in the language – I think we’d all like to see ‘impeach’ in common use soon – and in the tidal wave of greed preceding the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

I can’t finish this without quoting a few more of my favourite flash expressions: gospel-shop  a church; glaziers eyes; pot-valiant drunk; dandyprat a puny little fellow; caper-merchant a dancing master and prattle-broth tea. I long for a way to work these into the conversation.

Blasts from the Past: River Thieves by Michael Crummey (2001)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I went through a phase of reading novels about Native Americans of which Michael Crummey’s debut was one of the best. That particular interest had been sparked by several holidays in the American South West.  I remember, vividly, driving through the Arizonan desert marvelling at the landscape while listening to reggae on the Navajo radio station, something for which they have a passion. Sadly we’d missed a Toots and the Maytals gig the previous year in Santa Fe by just a few days.

River Thieves is set about as far from New Mexico as where I live in the UK. It’s the story of the extinction of a Newfoundland tribe – the Beothuk – in the early nineteenth century. I no longer remember as much about the novel’s story as I would like but a quick Google trawl reminded me that Crummey uses four characters to unfold this miserable tale of atrocity: a fisherman who loathes the Beothuk, his more tolerant son, their strong-minded housekeeper and a British naval officer assigned to investigate rumours of outrages perpetrated against the tribe. Two expeditions are launched, both involving the fisherman and his son, one in search of a peaceful solution which goes horribly wrong, and the second – years later – which ends in the kidnapping of a Beothuk woman and a murder.

What struck me most about the novel was the beautiful prose in which Crummey unfolds this sad story, and the subtlety with which he handles it. Just over a year ago I read his latest novel, Sweetland, and while I enjoyed it, it was no match for River Thieves which seems overdue for a rereading. Just as well I have my old proof copy as it seems that, sadly, the novel is no longer in print in the UK. Naomi over at Consumed by Ink is a fellow fan if you’d like to read a more detailed review.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch: Roll up, roll up…

Cover imageI suspect Carol Birch has something of a fascination with the world of circuses and freak shows. Set in the nineteenth century, her last novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, followed Jaffy who is sent to the Dutch East Indies to capture a ‘dragon’ for the eponymous menagerie but finds himself shipwrecked. Orphans of the Carnival ventures far further into that world, telling the story of Julia Pastrana, a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price.

Julia tucks away the card a visiting impresario hands her, knowing that it’s her passport into the world outside the small town she’s never left. Heavily veiled, she takes the long and arduous journey to New Orleans accompanied only by the crude wooden doll her mother made for her before disappearing. Rates can hardly believe his luck when Julia arrives, establishing her in his sister-in-law’s lodging house where she meets several more of his clients. She is to make her debut topping the bill of a show that will include Cato, an exuberant pinhead. Julia’s reception is more than Rates could have hoped for – ostensibly a musical performance, everyone knows it’s her unveiling that the audience have paid for. So begins a career in which she will be handed on from manager to manager, travelling the world but not seeing it, lonely and hoping for love, sometimes reunited with the few friends she makes, including her dearest Cato. When Theo Lent makes her an offer, dangling the delights of Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg before her, she takes him up on it and the world opens up a little. She’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball, welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Love of a sort is found but this is not a story that was ever going to end well. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip.

Orphans of the Carnival takes its story from the bare bones of Julia Pastrana’s life and it’s this knowledge that makes the book so poignant. Julia suffered from a rare genetic condition but lived in a time when human deformity was paraded around and presented as entertainment. Birch spins her story well, carefully avoiding the sentimental yet always compassionate – there’s a particularly heartrending scene when Julia whispers to a Saint Petersburg fortune-teller ‘Am I human?’ It’s an absorbing novel with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread. I’m still not entirely sure why Birch decided to include it; it seemed something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. We live in much more enlightened times these days but as I read Birch’s novel I was reminded of those queasy trailers several years back for a Channel 4 series featuring people with deforming medical conditions. Maybe we’re neither as sensitive nor as enlightened as we like to think we are.

Blasts from the Past: The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Bit of an uncharacteristic choice for me, this one: not only is it a piece of crime fiction but it’s extraordinarily gruesome in places. It was the idea of an alienist brought into to apply newly developed psychological ideas and techniques to the case that fascinated me – a nineteenth-century Cracker, if you will.

Against a New York backdrop – that, of course, was the other draw – The Alienist follows the investigation of a set of murders on Manhattan’s Lower East Side thought to be the work of a serial killer. Dr Laszlo Kreizler and the team set about putting together a psychological profile of the murderer, investigating his victims in an attempt to understand what he has done to them and what motivated him, a revolutionary idea given the prevalent belief at the time that killers were born not made. The novel is peopled with historical figures, from Theodore Roosevelt who takes an active interest in the case to J. P. Morgan, and is replete with period detail reflecting Caleb Carr’s scholarly training. It’s a gripping atmospheric novel. I remember being absolutely riveted by it although I never did get around to reading Carr’s sequel, The Angel of Death.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?