It was its setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. I’m a sucker for novels set in my favourite cities: New York, Amsterdam and, in this case, Berlin. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.
In 1923 Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Julius finds himself falling under Matthias Rachmann’s spell, easing the misery of his acrimonious divorce with the balm of Matthias’ esteem. Julius is the author of a bestselling van Gogh biography whose American royalties have protected him from the ravages of rampant inflation. His dearest possession is a painting by the artist which his wife took when she left together with their son. As the relationship between the two men deepens, Matthias seeks Julius’ seal of approval for more artworks until an incident between Julius and a young girl strains it to snapping point. Emmeline is a talented artist who loses herself in Berlin’s decadent partying, eventually finding work as an illustrator in 1927. When she attends the opening of Matthias’ new gallery which proudly boasts a cache of lost van Goghs, she meets an aspiring journalist who scents a scandal and roots it out. By 1933 the Jewish lawyer who defended Matthias watches as Berlin falls into the Nazis’ grip, reluctant to leave yet fearful for his and his wife’s safety. As his work dwindles away he begins to examine Matthias’ case again.
From her Author’s Note it’s clear that Clark’s novel closely follows the trajectory of the Wacker case, reimagining it and fleshing it out through three vividly realized characters from whose perspective she tells her story. Matthias’ duplicity is signaled from the beginning of his carefully fostered relationship with Julius whose public approbation he needs to enact his breathtaking fraud. The art establishment, with its tight-lipped unity in the face of Matthias’ hoodwinking, is smartly skewered and the depiction of Berlin’s streets full of brownshirts emboldened in their ant-Semitic abuse is chilling. Mid-way through I began to wander if Clark would manage to knit her three perspectives together but it works. An absorbing novel which perceptively explores human vanity while depicting a city on the brink of what will become a catastrophe for the world.
After one war novel too many – I should never have started Toby’s Room when I did – and a weekend of giving up books I was sorely in need of a palate cleanser on Monday. Billed by Virago as having ‘shades of Joanna Briscoe and Maggie O’Farrell’ Olivia Glazebrook’s second novel seemed like it might do the trick although it has to be said I have been caught out by that kind of comparison before. It opens with Eliza’s announcement that her piano teacher once knew her parents, news that seems innocent enough but it soon becomes clear that this is a past coming back to haunt you kind of novel making it far from comfortable news for her father. Told through a blend of flashbacks and present day, Never Mind Miss Fox smoothly switches points-of-view between Clive, Martha and Eliza. Clive emerges as something of a misfit, a far from cool teenager who grows into a weak, self-absorbed man. Martha, much brighter and self-assured, finds herself overwhelmed by motherhood, desperate to return to work until an accident involving Eliza throws her into a pit of guilt. Eliza, bullied at school, conceives a gigantic crush on Eliot Fox much to the horror of her father. As the past emerges the full extent of Clive’s involvement with Eliot becomes clear and his attempts to stop his daughter from seeing her again have sobering results.
Never Mind Miss Fox engages from the start and keeps that engagement going through its strong characterisation as well as a driving need to find out what happens next. Clive is the kind of man who makes a cup of tea for himself when there are two people in the room, seeing only the threat Eliot poses to his own future rather than how much she means to his vulnerable daughter. Martha’s change from successful translator, constantly in demand, to guilt-ridden mother perpetually unsure of her daughter’s love is convincing – the only weak link being what she’s doing with Clive in the first place. Eliza’s upset, worry and puzzlement at what is happening between her parents is poignantly and compellingly conveyed, no mean feat when writing from a child’s point-of view. This is a novel about betrayal which steers deftly clear of a clichéd revenge tale, exploring instead the far more interesting territory of the emotional fallout that surrounds it. It doesn’t quite have the gripping quality of an O’Farrell novel – for me she’s the master of dual narrative suspense – but it’s a satisfying afternoon’s read that comes close. I’m feeling refreshed and ready to start again. Do you sometimes hit a jaded patch in your reading and if so how do you get over it?
It was the title that attracted me to Katharine Grant’s Sedition, just one word that promised a great deal particularly as the novel is set in 1794, just five years after the beginning of the French Revolution. In fact political sedition is not the main theme of this bawdy, rollicking tale, although there are hints of events across the Channel together with a general mistrust of foreigners. It’s more to do with subversion of male authority.
A City man with a fortune but no status approaches a pianoforte maker, passionate about his craft and arrogant with it. The City man has a plan: he and his four friends have daughters they wish to see married to gentlemen, that is men with titles rather than men of honour which seems to be an entirely different thing and not worth bothering with. They wish to buy a piano, the new-fangled instrument pushing the harpsichord aside in stylish salons, so that their daughters can show off their accomplishments in front of an assembly of suitably ennobled bachelors in the hope of gaining husbands: a cattle market, as one such ‘gentlemen’ later remarks, albeit an elegant one. Cantabile refuses to sell one of his precious instruments to such a vulgar person but his daughter Annie undermines him, enchanting Mr Drigg with her sublime playing while mortifying him with the sight of her disfigurement, the harelip which has so embittered her father. Infuriated, Cantabile devises a form of revenge: he will sell the piano providing the City men employ Monsieur Belladroit, a louche piano teacher who agrees to seduce all five of the daughters in the hope that their prospective husbands will return them to their fathers as soiled goods.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Alathea Swaneyford. Motherless, beautiful, smart and far more knowing than she should be, Alathea stands apart from the other daughters: the gallumphing Marianne in constant competition with her sister Everina, the painfully ethereal Georgiana who refuses to eat and Harriet, already set on her common or garden next door neighbour as a mate. Claude Belladroit’s attempts to seduce each of them, some times getting more than he bargained for, and his surprised but delighted discovery that Alathea needs no such effort is a comic counterpoint to the darker themes of Swaneyford’s perversity and Cantabile’s poisonous taunting of his humiliated daughter. Orchestrated by Alathea, the daughters’ act of sedition is a comic turn, a little over done and over long, but satisfying nevertheless until tragedy intervenes. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, liberally laced with a ribald, salacious wit underpinned with sufficient sobriety to save it from caricature .
J. Courtney Sullivan writes the kind of long involving books into which you can comfortably sink, surfacing now and again for a cup of tea or whatever you fancy. Maine was the kind of family saga which I feel slightly guilty about reading – a bit like being unable to keep your hand out of the chocolate box – but intelligently written and completely absorbing. Her new novel, The Engagements, is also about relationships structured around the idea of the engagement ring, a ‘tradition’ apparently manufactured via a clever advertising campaign back in the 1940s. It has four main narrative strands each of which explores a character’s relationship with their spouse, married or not, through which the story of Frances Gerety, the copywriter for the De Beers campaign who came up with the immortal phrase ‘A Diamond is Forever’, is threaded. Each strand is set in a different year: in 1972 Evelyn frets about her son who has left his wife and daughters, remembering her own marriages; James, a paramedic, works the Christmas Eve shift in 1987 worrying about money and whether his wife still loves him; in 2003 Delphine has left her rather dull husband in Paris for a much younger virtuoso violinist in New York and in 2012 Kate is delighted that her gay cousin is marrying his boyfriend but hates the institution of marriage. All four strands are neatly drawn together in the final section of the novel. It’s a clever structure which enables Sullivan to view the enormity of social change over the last sixty or so years through the lens of relationships and our attitudes to marriage. It’s deftly handled and utterly engrossing although the Frances Gerety sections are slightly clunky as if Sullivan couldn’t quite bear to let all that research go to waste.
Talking of intelligent women’s fiction, and non-fiction, the Huffington Post has a little slideshow called Ten Books Every Women Should Read which makes for interesting reading in itself. No sign of The Female Eunuch or The Awakening, and it was something of a surprise to see The Help as their second choice but good to see Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman there. Suggestions for must-read books for women gratefully received here – I’d like to add Kamila Shamsie’s brilliant Burnt Shadows whose female protagonist is one of the strongest I’ve come across in contemporary fiction. Much, much better than The Help.