Historical novelist Daniel Mason’s name will be well known to many readers, I’m sure. I remember The Piano Tuner causing quite a stir when it was published back in 2002 but it didn’t appeal to me. You might wonder, then, why I picked up A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth but its multitude of different settings made it an attractive prospect, given I’m unlikely to be travelling in reality any time soon. Mason’s collection takes its readers from Ancient Egypt to twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro and many points in between, each piece pleasingly prefaced with an illustration from an appropriate historical source.
Four of the nine stories that make up this collection stood out for me. Ironically, given that travel yen, the first is set in Bristol, a ten-minute train ride away in the normal run of things. Death of the Pugilist, or the Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman Mcgraw is the tale of a young nineteenth-century stevedore, groomed for the fight of his life against an old, celebrated bruiser which reminded me a little of Anna Freeman’s Bristol-set novel, The Fair Fight all about eighteenth-century female boxing. The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace sees the young, self-taught Wallace in the midst of an expedition. Flattered by his correspondence with Charles Darwin, Wallace has written a letter to his hero and is distressed by the lack of response, attributing it to his own stupidity while the truth is entirely different. Leaping forward to twentieth-century California, a man remembers his Polish immigrant uncle and his inexplicable passion for Civil War enactments in which he willingly played an unpopular role in The Union Dead. On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c takes us up into the skies, delivering a surprise as a female balloonist seeks to recreate her vision of an apparent rent in the sky, this time with a witness.
Fifteen years in the writing, much of Mason’s collection explores history, science and a thirst for knowledge often through the perspective of outsiders. Many of his stories are vivid, memorably capturing both the theatre of nineteenth-century pugilism and the astonishing richness of the natural world Wallace encounters. There’s often a playful humour underpinning their themes – a doctor’s increasingly frequent seizures which result in a better version of himself much to his wife’s delight in The Second Doctor Service is particularly pleasing. Just one piece didn’t work for me and that was the titular story about the Brazilian schizophrenic artist Bispo do Rosario which took the form of a catalogue of found pieces from which he made his art. It certainly conveyed a disordered mind but a little too incoherently for my taste although Cathy at What Cathy Read Next loved it. An interesting collection, full of colourful images whose jacket fits it beautifully.
Three Jane Smileys in a year seems a little greedy but once started on The Last Hundred Years Trilogy all thoughts of delayed gratification go out of the window. For those who haven’t yet come across the first two, the trilogy tells the sometimes torturous history of the United States through the story of an Iowan farming family, beginning in 1920 with Some Luck and continuing with Early Warning. Golden Age picks up the Langdons in 1987 and takes them to the imagined end of Smiley’s century. Impossible not to refer back to the first two so if you haven’t read them yet, you may want to look away now.
Golden Age opens with a reunion to welcome the new member of the family we learnt about at the end of Early Warning. The second generation is well into middle age. Now a wealthy man, Frank’s interest in the family farm has been reinvigorated by his correspondence with his nephew Jesse whose scientific approach chimes more with Frank’s than with his father Joe’s. Henry is a professor in Chicago still studying medieval literature although beginning to shift his focus. Arthur, now retired, is still inconsolable after the loss of Lillian, and Claire has regained her independence after her divorce, taking up a job as a buyer in a Chicago department store. As the novel progresses, the next generation moves seamlessly into the spotlight – Richie becomes involved in national politics; his volatile twin Michael strides around the financial world; Jesse takes over the farm, eager to test his theories, while Charlie attaches himself to the green movement – before focussing on their own children. The trilogy comes to a close with two events, both of which will draw the family together again in a world very different from the one in which it opened.
Just as with Some Luck and Early Warning, Golden Age felt a little slow to get off the ground for me but once it does it’s hard to put it aside. Smiley cleverly uses a family reunion to reacquaint us with the Langdon family, wisely choosing not to follow all their many offspring. References to events in the previous novels are deftly woven in – useful reminders for those of us who’ve read them and context for those who haven’t. Historical events and social change are reflected and refracted through the characters’ lives: we see the devastation wreaked by AIDs on Henry’s friends; Michael is caught up in the increasing lunacy of the financial markets; the terrible repercussions of the Iraq war come home to roost; climate change and its effects are seen through the farm and in Richie’s half-hearted attempts to influence policy-making. Cultural and historical references are lightly handled – British readers might be amused at Richie’s reaction to a BBC report of the 1987 storm which raged through the South East: ‘didn’t they know what a tornado was?’ There are some surprising omissions – if there was a mention of Katrina I missed it which seemed a little odd given the novel’s emphasis on climate change, likewise the seemingly endless sex scandals in the Catholic church – but that’s a small quibble. Politicians are often talked of in terms of legacy – The Last Hundred Years Trilogy is undoubtedly Smiley’s: assured, thought-provoking, magisterial and a damn fine story. You could read Golden Age as a standalone novel but I can’t imagine why you’d want to deprive yourself of the first two.
Early Warning is the second instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. I read the immensely enjoyable Some Lucklast year and have been looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. Now, of course, I’m impatient for the final instalment, although, like all absorbing reads where you feel on intimate terms with the characters, I suspect I won’t want to reach the end. Impossible not to talk about this book without some reference to the first novel in the trilogy so if you haven’t read that and would rather not know best skip on.
It opens in 1953 with a funeral – those of you who have read Some Luckwill know whose it is – neatly passing the baton on to the next generation. Frank is now on the way to becoming a wealthy man, still running the odd errand for Arthur, his sister Lillian’s husband who works for an unnamed government agency in Washington although it’s not hard to work out which one it is. Joe has taken on the family farm, living with his wife Lois and her sister Minnie in their parents’ farmhouse. Henry is set upon a path to academia, conceiving a passion for his cousin, the beautiful daughter of his determinedly communist Aunt Eloise. Claire, the youngest and her father’s favourite, seems the only one adrift after his death, eventually settling upon a secretarial course and then a somewhat ill-advised marriage. As all but one of the siblings have their own children, who in turn have theirs, the novel’s canvas broadens setting the scene nicely for Golden Age, the trilogy’s final volume.
As with the Some Luck, I found the novel a little slow to gel at first – there are many characters, even more as each generation produces the next – but within a few chapters it becomes hard to tear yourself away. Smiley weaves social change and historical events deftly through her characters’ lives: we see the covert meddling of the CIA in other countries’ affairs through Arthur whose conscience is stretched to breaking point; the ups and downs of Joe’s farming life reflect the crisis that gripped rural America in the ‘80s; the Vietnam war rumbles away in the background then comes brutally to the fore; the Cuban Missile Crisis and the ever-present knowledge of the Cold War provokes nightmares in Frank’s daughter. Cultural references are part of the novel’s warp and weft – there’s a nice one to Where the Wild ThingsAre, left behind in Claire’s car. If you’ve lived through some of this period, you’ll appreciate the skill with which Smiley achieves all this – the first seemingly casual mention of Reverend Jones and warning bells began to ring – it’s all smoothly done, no ‘here’s the science’ moments. Early Warning ends in 1986 with a revelation which satisfyingly resolves a niggling strand running intermittently through the novel and offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the Langdons . What an achievement! Looking up the publication date for Golden Age, I see it’s due in October – can’t come soon enough.
Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut is one of those books about which there’s been a good deal of eager anticipation in my neck of the Twitter woods. That way disappointment often lies but this twenty-first century take on Emma Bovary turns out to live up to all that’s been tweeted. Although Hausfrau is Essbaum’s first novel she’s an award-winning poet with a poet’s facility for language which makes this book a treat for those who appreciate a well-turned phrase as well as an absorbing piece of literature.
Thirty-seven-year-old Anna Benz lives in a well-heeled suburb of Zurich with her husband, Bruno, their two sons and a daughter. Anna is an American. She moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with Victor, their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant rather than a bystander. They’re a disparate bunch, from the irrepressible Mary – a Canadian whose hockey-playing husband has been head-hunted by a premier team – to Nancy, single, childless and happily independent. Archie is the one who captures Anna’s attention and almost immediately they begin an affair. This is what Anna does to feel alive – sex with men who are almost strangers, about whom she knows and cares next to nothing but who offer a few hours of escape from herself. Only one has meant something to her, and it’s with him that she thinks herself still in love. Over the course of three months, Anna finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core.
Anna leads a life so attenuated she has faded almost entirely into its background. She has just one self-absorbed friend, rarely exchanges even a greeting with other mothers at the school gate, has little connection other than politeness with her mother-in-law and feels that she and Bruno share only ‘a version of love’, a phrase which recurs throughout the novel. She doesn’t even have her own bank account. All these details are slowly revealed though vignettes from Anna’s psychiatric sessions, her various affairs, her class and her family life, with flashes of dreams and remembered moments from her affair with Stephen. Essbaum uses language strikingly: ‘Their husbands wore the jewellery of their beauty like elegant wristwatches’ describes bankers and their trophy wives to a T. Comparisons with Emma Bovary are inevitable, perhaps even expected: the stultifying social niceties of bourgeois Switzerland stand in nicely for nineteenth-century provincial France. Almost pitch-perfect then for me but one quibble: Doktor Messerli’s comments worked beautifully as a device for illuminating Anna’s personality but Jungian analysis seems an arduous task for one so passive. That said, this is an extraordinarily impressive debut. Had I read it before posting my Baileys Prize wish list I certainly would have included it.
A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. Each chapter of this first instalment follows a year in their lives ending in 1953. For me, this is an irresistible structure: something to get your teeth into.
Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna have farming in their blood: he’s from Irish stock, she’s from German. Their parents live close by the farm which Walter has stuck his neck out and bought at the age of twenty-five. The novel opens with a striking image of an owl flying out of a dead tree, clearly its nesting place, then swooping down to seize a rabbit. Walter realises that the tree he’s been thinking should be cleared would make lousy firewood and now he knows it houses a predator which will rid him of a pest or two he can leave it: the perfect solution for a farmer. He and Rosanna raise a family: Frank, smart, opportunistic and single-minded – determined to get out into the world; Joe, soft-hearted but quietly steady with a talent for managing livestock and crops; Lillian, a beauty from birth, empathetic and maternal; Henry, always with his head in a book; and Claire, the late child and her father’s favourite. By the time we get to 1953, a new generation has been born: Walter and Rosanna are grandparents many times over and several of their children are far from home, one of them engaged in work their parents never could have imagined.
This isn’t the first time Smiley has told the story of an Iowan farming family. Her Pulitzer prize-winning A Thousand Acres was a re-imagining of King Lear set on an Iowan farm. The Last Hundred Years Trilogy has a much broader canvas and will take the Langdons as far as 2020. The pace is slow to begin with, but who cares when you know that you’re in for three novels of expert storytelling. Smiley takes her time building her characters, placing them firmly in the landscape while deftly slipping in world events and social change, from the Crash of ‘29 and the Depression which followed it to clashes between Walter and Joe about changes in farming methods. Even those new-fangled Band-aids get a mention. It’s all beautifully done, never clunky and without the clutter of literary fireworks. As the children and their extended family move out into the world the canvas broadens: Rosanna’s sister becomes involved in communism, Frank comes into himself in the Second World War, Lillian’s sudden choice of a husband takes her to Washington DC and into the fringes of government. It ends in the Cold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written which leaves me fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020.
This is one of those novels about which there was a good deal of excited chatter in my neck of the Twitter woods so I approached it with a degree of caution not helped by the title which seemed a tad overblown (sorry!) but turned out to have a perfectly good explanation. A few chapters in and any concerns that it might have been overhyped were quashed. It opens in 1943. John Easley finds himself marooned on the Aleutian island of Attu after his plane has gone down. One of the crew, a young man barely out of his teens, has survived with him. Conditions on the island are atrocious – dangerously cold, little or no shelter or food besides a cave and what they can forage. Easley is a journalist who has finagled his way round the news blackout surrounding the Japanese-occupied islands, donning his brother’s Canadian Air Force uniform and assuming his identity. Young Karl makes clear his resentment but realises that a better chance of survival lies in unity of purpose. Meanwhile, Helen who parted with Easley on bad terms, is desperate to find the whereabouts of her husband, conceiving a plan to travel to the Aleutians to look for him despite many obstacles put in her way. Their stories are told in alternating narratives as Easley grapples with loneliness, starvation and a brutal environment while dodging the Japanese forces just a stone’s throw away, and Helen makes her way from Seattle to Alaska, posing as an entertainer performing for the troops, casting around for clues, never giving up.
I’m a huge fan of the dual narrative. Well managed it’s a clever device for instilling suspense but it’s all too easy for it to fall flat on its face. Brian Payton deftly avoids this, balancing Easley and Helen’s very different stories beautifully while slowly inching them together. The writing is restrained, a little clipped and largely unadorned which suits his subject well, yet there are phrases that shine out – plovers ‘dutifully march along like businessmen late for a meeting’, ‘the ache in his jaw bullies all memory’ when Easley tries to distract himself from his rotten molar. Both their plights are intensely moving: Easley finds previously unthinkable ways to survive, both physically and emotionally, while Helen steadfastly believes her husband is alive, despite all evidence to the contrary, remaining heroically determined to find him no matter what it takes. There is a coincidence at the end – which, of course, I’m not going to reveal – that feels like a step too far but given all that has gone before it’s easy to forgive.
So, I’ve read another war novel despite saying that I wouldn’t for some months although it has to be said that the intensity of Easley and Helen’s stories are such that the war becomes something of a side-show until the novel nears its end. I knew little or nothing about the Aleutians, their part in the war or otherwise, I’m sorry to say but I learnt that the indigenous people were treated shamefully, interned in the same way as the Japanese Americans memorably portrayed in Maureen Lindley’s A Girl Like You. Who says fiction doesn’t teach you anything?