Tag Archives: Historical fiction

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?

Moonstone by Sjón (transl. Victoria Cribb): The Boy Who Never Was

Cover imageWhen I included Moonstone in one of my June previews I was surprised when several people picked up on it, already acquainted with Sjón’s writing either through a previous novel or from songs he’d written with Björk. He’s a talented guy: an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and librettist. I wish I could say that I knew all about him already but it was Moonstone’s synopsis that drew me to it rather than Sjón’s reputation. Set in 1918 in Reykjavík, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn – the eponymous Moonstone – over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Iceland’s capital.

Máni is so obsessed with the movies that he visits both of Reykjavík’s cinemas, sometimes twice a day. It’s an expensive business but Máni turns tricks to fund his habit, visiting various “gentlemen” throughout the city, all very furtive about their predilections. He’s transfixed by Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie – Feuillde’s epic, Les Vampires. When she tosses  her scarlet scarf to him, it becomes his most prized possession. Máni’s routine is shattered when a Danish passenger ship docks in the city bringing influenza with it. Soon both movie houses fall silent as the musicians succumb to the disease. As the fatalities mount, the only doctor left standing recruits Máni and Sólborg to make house visits, carting the bodies to the mortuary and tending the sick. The beginning of the new year, almost three months after the epidemic began, marks the beginning of Icelandic sovereignty celebrated with great ceremony on January 1st, 1919, a day which ends in disgrace for Máni. Eleven years later, he returns to the city.

There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella. As you might expect from a writer who seems to excel in whichever form he chooses, the writing is striking. For the illiterate Máni: ‘the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word’. When the outside world impinges on Iceland in the form of influenza: ‘The silver screen has torn and a draught is blowing between the worlds’. You could call it an adult fairy tale but Sjón blends fact with fiction including a multitude of filmic references and historic events. Its ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. In the final paragraph we learn that the book is dedicated to the memory of Sjón‘s uncle, Bósi – ‘sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist and gay’ – who died from AIDS in 1993, making it all the more poignant. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: A surefire prize winner

Cover imageRegular readers may have gathered by now how I feel about Twitter hype. All too often it leads to disappointment. Having already read and admired After Me Comes the Flood, though, it seemed likely that at least some of the love being poured on Sara Perry’s second novel was entirely genuine, and so it proved to be. It’s now joined the select band of the best books I’ve read in 2016. Set in 1885, it’s the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around the village of Aldwinter.

On New Year’s Eve, a young man – somewhat the worse for wear – staggers home from the pub and wonders about taking a dip in the Blackwater River. Next morning, he’s found with his head twisted round a hundred and eighty degrees, drowned in the mud. Soon rumours circulate about the Essex Serpent, back stalking the marshes and wreaking havoc, killing a goat here, drowning another young man there. Will Ransome, the local parson, refuses to preach from the pulpit about this monstrous apparition, despite the increasing collective hysteria taking hold of his congregation. A man of faith, he’s well acquainted with current theories of science and rationality, convinced there’s a perfectly logical explanation. To preach about it would be to taint God with superstition. In London, the newly widowed Cora Seagrove hears of the serpent and thinks it may be a ‘living fossil’. Liberated from the constant cruelty of her husband she decides to take her son and his nanny – Cora’s dear companion – to Colchester where she bumps into old friends who suggest she stays with the Ransome family in Aldwinter. Unbeknownst to her, Cora has already met Will, although hardly in the best of circumstances. When they meet again, it’s as if there’s a flash of understanding between them. So begins a passionate friendship in which these two will debate all manner of things.

The Essex Serpent is a novel of ideas all wrapped up in a stonkingly good bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose. All those nineteenth-century themes are present, correct and deftly woven in: science, religion, medical advance, philanthropy, education and above all, women’s place in society. Distant echoes of our own world sound throughout – veterans of another Afghan war on London’s streets, a chasm between the rich and the poor. Perry’s characters are vividly drawn: Cora is a triumph with her constantly questing curiosity, her openness to the world, uncaring about what others think of her tramping across the marshes in her mannish clothes. The relationship between Cora and Will could easily have descended into melodrama but Perry is far too clever for that, neatly avoiding a clichéd ending. The opening chapter with its repetition of ‘time’ calling to mind ‘fog’ in Bleak House feels like a nod to Dickens as do several characters – Charles Ambrose, the rich benefactor who assuages his guilt but has no wish to sully his hands with the poor, and Thomas Taylor, the beggar who carefully composes his face so as to best rook passers-by – but while comparisons with Dickens seem apt there’s nothing of the caricature about Perry’s well-rounded characters, nothing simplified about the ideas Will and Cora debate. It’s hard not to gush about this novel. It’s a glittering, thought-provoking and marvellous piece of fiction. Surely impossible for it not to be garlanded with prizes.

The Photographer’s Wife by Suzanne Joinson: Echoes of The Go-Between in Jerusalem, 1920

Cover imageAs regular readers may have noticed, I tend to bang on a bit about book jackets. They’re the first thing a reader sees after all, the first step along the way to reading a book – or not. Suzanne Joinson’s novel is a fine example of getting it right: the cover’s striking and it fits the book well. Set in 1920, The Photographer’s Wife follows the eleven-year-old daughter of an architect commissioned to design new plans for Jerusalem, let loose on her own in a city fractured by a multitude of interests and fraught with danger.

Prue is sent to live with her father when her mother suffers a breakdown after the death of their second child. Charles lives in the Hotel Fast with his mistress, far too caught up in himself, his work and the social life of this city where all the British seem to know each other, to keep a parental eye on his daughter. Left almost entirely to her own devices, Prue looks and listens – hiding behind curtains, crawling under tables – hearing and seeing things she shouldn’t. Lonely and outcast, she attaches herself to Eleanora, married to an Arab photographer intent on recording the brutality perpetrated by the British out in the desert. Eleanora befriends Prue, suggesting she learns Arabic with Ihsan who listens intently as she recounts what she overhears. Into this mix steps William, commissioned by Charles to provide aerial photographs of the city and its surrounds, ostensibly to help him complete his architectural plans. A casualty of the First World War, both physically and mentally, William has come to Jerusalem to find Eleanora with whom he has been in love for many years. Against this complicated political and personal backdrop, Joinson unfolds her story of duplicity, espionage and thwarted love all of which will come back to haunt both Prue and William.

Joinson’s novel flits back and forth between Prue’s childhood and her rackety life in Shoreham in 1937, living with her six-year-old son in a beach hut and working on her sculpture. Much of the narrative is from Prue’s eleven-year-old point of view, vividly conveying the febrile atmosphere of a city in which the British cosy up to Nazis and Armenians rub shoulders with both, all of them laying claim to what isn’t theirs. Desperate for attention, Prue is easy prey for manipulation and is frequently in danger. Her experience will have terrible repercussions for her, echoing L. P. Hartley’s Leo Colston in The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in Atonement. It’s a clever device, and Joinson uses it well. For me the passages written from William’s point of view were less convincing but that’s a minor quibble. Altogether a story well told, and a sobering reminder that we’re still reaping what was sown nearly a century later.