Historical Fiction

Book Review of The Golden Age

The-Golden-Age-by-Joan-LondonI picked this one up as an option for VCE English next year.  It is a lovely, soft, and lyrical novel surrounding the patients, nurses and families who visit The Golden Age, a hospice for children with polio in the 1950s.

At the centre of the novel is Frank, an intense Hungarian Jew who emigrated with his family to Australia after the rise of Hitler.  Frank was introduced to poetry by another man he connected to in hospital, who died whilst receiving treatment in the dreaded iron lung.  Armed with a prescription pad in lieu of proper notepaper, Frank writes down free verse that inspires him – and he is largely inspired by beautiful Elsa in the girls’ ward.

This is a quiet story of connecting and losing connection.  I found it slow in places, but was still committed to getting to the finish.  I’d be hesitant putting it on a text list for this reason too.  This is no easy read and the payoff is subtle and perhaps, short lasting.  Lacks deep impact.


Book Review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz

TTOA_BookThis has been getting quite a bit of press lately, largely because it cannot be simply written off as ‘just another Holocaust novel’ (and heaven forfend we every do that, and stop trying to understand this dark chapter in human history).

The most amazing thing about this quite powerful story – is that it is actually true. Through years of interviewing Heather Morris was able to extract the story of a young man who was saved from the Gas Chambers of Auschwitz by becoming the tattooist responsible for marking every individual who entered those infamous gates.  While Lale feels guilt for every mark he makes, he tries to make amends by sharing his good fortune – from extra food to access to confiscated goods – with those who need them.  Central to his plight to is an unlikely love story with a woman he meets as she enters the camp.  For years their romance nourishes them, and losing each other becomes their greatest fear.  Until of course, Auschwitz reveals more horrors.  Lale is taken to the torture chambers when his actions are discovered, and other characters unfortunately attract the attention of Dr Mengele, whose menacing presence looms over aspects of the story, and whose evil is even felt by the guards.

Resourcefulness and love win out here, even in the darkest of times.  At times I questioned how all this could be true – but once again, it is proven that truth is stranger than fiction.  Definitely one I would recommend.

Book Review of Transcription

KA transcriptionKate Atkinson is a great writer – and Transcription is a compelling read, even if it doesn’t have the same pull and originality as Life After Life.

Set in World War II, Juliet Armstrong is a young woman recruited into a fairly dull government job – and then recruited into a fairly dull position in MI6, transcribing conversations between British spies and Nazi sympathisers.  Then suddenly she finds herself drawn into that Spies world, acting out her own role and undertaking her own investigations.

After her particular investigation is closed, Juliet notes with some sadness that this part of her life is over… but it appears the spy world is never truly finished with us.  Even 10 years later she is still drawn in… if not by people, then by her own mind.

The shifting time frames make this a particularly interesting read, focussing the reader clearly upon the impact of past on present.  Nothing earth-shattering here, but a good read nonetheless.  I have A God in Ruins on my bedside table as well (this is a review copy), and have shifted it higher up the to-read pile.

Book Review of The Underground Railroad

underground railroadA complex story that would have been better explored in the written word rather than by audio, which is how I experienced it.

What’s powerful about this book is its bleak depiction of the cruelties of slavery  – of the lives of slaves on plantations, of slaves on the run who are hunted like animals and never feel safe, and even of free black men and women in a time where their brothers and sisters are kept as property.

The story centres on Cora – a black woman with some degree of freedom through her mother’s possession of a small pocket of land, although no matter what she does, she cannot escape capture and enslavement.  She escapes and lives under an assumed name but is taken – she is freed again and lives amongst other runaway slaves, but that same slave-catcher comes for her.  I guess like Cora, none of us can escape this history.

It’s important to understand that Whitehead has included many fantastical and anachronistic elements in the novel – likely to suggest the connections between many human cruelties and the ongoing nature of these.  For example, Whitehead makes the metaphorical underground railroad into a real one.  Cora also encounters a eugenics movement – this time looking to sterilise black women to limit the number of blacks in America.

Fascinating and compelling, this is indeed a story worth attention, discussion and no doubt at some point – study in schools.

Book Review of The Red-Haired Woman

I’ve been meaning to read an Orhan Pamuk- and I picked up this title purely in the spur of the moment.  It sounded intriguing, and while there was enjoyable stuff here, images.jpegultimately The Red-Haired Woman left me unsatisfied.

This is a story about fathers and sons – even though the main character Cem Celik, is estranged from his.  Instead, he begins to feel a friendship with Master Mahmut, a well-digger with whom he takes a summer job before he begins study at the university.  Its also a story tied up in other stories – in a love of literature and in the many canon stories that explore the relationship between destructive elements of the father-son relationship – Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex for example, as well as many of Pamuk’s local Turkish folk tales.

But back to plot…

Whilst digging a well and telling each  other stories, Cem and Master Mehmut draw close – but all of this is spoilt when Cem falls for a mysterious red-haired actress and has to hide his passion and obsession.  It’s an obsession that leads to a terrible accident, and Cem flees without ever really knowing the outcome.

Years later though, destiny catches up with Cem.  He discovers the consequences of his passion of the red-haired woman, and the fate of his father-figure.  There is some interesting – if unbelievable symmetry here.

The final part of the text is unnecessarily and strangely narrated by the red-haired woman herself.  But this makes things too concrete and less poetic for the reader.  A bit of mystery really would have made for a more thought-provoking conclusion.

Book Review of The Last Tudor

In the afterword to The Last Tudor Philippa Gregory says she may not revisit what haslast tudor been an incredibly successful series of novels about women during the War of the Roses and the Tudor Ascension. And while I have really enjoyed this series – its easy to see why. She is stretching a little here in this final installment.

There are actually three narrators in The Last Tudor – all of which have part of a story to share about Elizabeth’s coming to power. The first is Lady Jane Grey – who was crowned queen for all of nine days. She was then imprisoned in the tower by Queen Mary and later executed for treason. Lady Jane is an uninspiring narrator, and it is actually a pleasure to move on to the second narrator, her younger sister Katherine.

When Elizabeth comes to the throne it is still amongst talk of her unmarried status. And as time speeds by and she remains unmarried (clearly due to her love for Robert Dudley in this text) pressure mounts for her to name an heir. Unfortunately for Katherine, she is too likely a successor. Elizabeth, portrayed as tyrannical queen desperate to hold on to the throne at all costs, sees Katherine as a threat. When Katherine marries into another high-ranking York house for love and in secret, she makes herself a target. Elizabeth imprisons her, her husband and her children.

Although we follow Katherine’s tragic yet touching history for some years and long into her confinement, the youngest sister Mary takes her turn narrating. Mary is the most interesting of the three sisters – a pragmatist with a unique perspective. Pretty as a doll but likely what would have been referred to as a dwarf in those times, Mary is incredibly wary and astute about Elizabeth – who never let any of her ladies marry. Mary too weds in secret, but far below her. She too incurs Elizabeth’s wrath.

It is interesting to see each of the sisters through each other’s eyes, and their damning portrayal of Elizabeth, who is long considered to have ushered in a ‘golden age’ in British history. The last section is by far the best, but it’s clear this is wearing thin. A novel parallel to this, set from Elizabeth’s perspective, would be most welcome though.

Book Review of Mischling

28664920The Holocaust must be one of the most written-about events in history – and so this makes it a risky bet for a novelist.  You need powerful storytelling or a real angle.

Affinity Konar definitely comes at it from a different angle, telling the story of a set of twins who catch the eye of infamous Dr Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.  Pearl and Stasha are those twins so intertwined that Stasha often answers to Pearl and resents anything that reinforces their separateness.  This unfortunately makes them fascinating to Mengele, who longed to explore this kind of connection, purposefully protecting one twin whilst damaging and deforming the other to watch it impact the pair.

Konar definitely exposes the world of Mengele’s ghastly twin experiments and uses some astonishing language to describe the strange beauties of the environment even in the most horrid places in the world.

“Night. It had forgotten it should not be so beautiful in Auschwitz.  There was no stopping it’s velvet sway..”

But beyond language and conception, there isn’t much original about the story Konar tells.  Some takes place in Auschwitz, but there are also long and meandering sections afterwards.  The title too is a strange misnomer… ‘Mischling’ is the German term for a person of mixed race.  Is it meant to suggest that each twin is merely the product of the mixing of both?  This seems limiting and redundant.

Although Pearl and Stasha make interesting characters and the nature of their “twin-ness” is heartwarming, I’d save my reading of the Holocaust for Eli Weisel’s Night or even Martin Amis’ Times Arrow instead.  These have real power.