Historical Fiction

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.

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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.

Book Review of The Horseman

9781408876879Tim Pears’ The Horseman is one of those quiet books in which not much happens, but you can take a great deal of comfort.

Set in Devon in 1911, our narrator Leo Sercombe is a twelve-year-old boy dedicated to horses.  Raised on a great estate as the son of the ostler, Leo is drawn to horses too and longs to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Although his brothers are grown up enough to play a variety of farming roles around the community, none share his curiosity or passion. He does find a kindred spirit in the young daughter of the master who wears boys clothes and shoots a gun and eventually is willing to allow Leo to ride her horse.

This is a first in a series – and this is pleasing as the abrupt ending is a bit of a shock and even though this wasn’t entirely my cup of tea (review copy) I do want to know how poor Leo gets on. Definitely one for those who like to read historical fiction of this era.

Book Review of The Wonder

unknownEmma Donoghue knows how to write an engaging story – and she knows the kinds of ideas and issues that will engage readers.

Although Frog Music wasn’t quite as popular as Room, The Wonder will find plenty of fans.

Set in rural Ireland, a nurse trained by legendary Florence Nightingale is called to watch over a young girl begin hailed as a miracle – surviving solely of a few teaspoons of water (and faith of course) each day.  Lib doesn’t share the community’s faith though, and initially keeps watch like a hawk to ensure the child isn’t taking on any sustenance.  However, as the days go on and she notices what is happening to the girl, her attitude changes remarkably.  I won’t say how or why, but The Wonder will grab your attention and keep it.  Donoghue paces the storyline well and creates complex and believable characters – even in these most strange of circumstances.  And this is not a one off – The Wonder is based on a number of cases steeped in fact and tradition. Fans will not be disappointed here.

 

Three Sisters, Three Queens

three-sisters-queensAnother chapter in this series, in which Philippa Gregory imagines history from the perspective of the women behind the scenes.  This time, she looks at Margaret Tudor, older sister of Henry VIII who was married to James, King of Scotland.

Margaret’s life was as turbulent as Scotland’s political history. She was widowed, remarried, divorced, remarried again and constantly in flux in terms of her relationship to her royal brother.

Beneath it all, Gregory keeps coming back to Margaret’s relationship with her two sisters; Mary her younger sister who was a greater beauty and married the King of France before choosing her own husband and returning to the British Court, and her sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon, more clever and more powerful, but ultimately more tragic.

Margaret does not play a key role in history, but Gregory does try to create some interest by teasing out the relationship these women have to each other.  But there are some issues – and ones that make this inferior to other books in this series.  Firstly, Margaret’s choices are difficult to fathom at times.  While a loving mother, she often leaves her son behind in the clutches of enemies as she repeatedly tries to save herself or better her own position.  Secondly, she makes some very silly decisions in regards to men, which put herself and her son at risk.  This makes her a difficult character to like and understand at times, especially when it is weak will that seems to be behind much of this.

Finally, the relationship to her sisters plays on every negative female stereotype you can imagine.  For a start, Margaret is competitive.  She wants to be more beautiful and more important than each.  She sometimes rejoices in their failures and is harsh when she could be kind.  But then when she has her own tragedies, she turns to them looking for comfort.  She is perplexed when Katherine orchestrates the murder of her first husband, a bitterness that returns time and time again, even when Katherine, once proud and powerful, begins to lose her husband to Anne Boleyn.

These factors make this book difficult to really like, although it is always interesting to read history from another perspective.  There are some interesting chapters here in regards to Scottish history – if only we had more of the information we need.