Historical Fiction

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.

Gushing Review of The Good People

1472712750201Like many, I was spellbound by the love of writing that was apparent in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – a detailed and meticulously researched portrayal of the last woman sentenced to death for murder in Iceland.   Burial Rites was a novel destined to take the international stage – one that blended physical and emotional realities masterfully and explored a complex character and the reactions of those around her with sophistication and deftness.

The Good People, Kent’s follow-up, holds all the same magic.

Set in a remote village near the Flesk River in Killarney, The Good People explores the superstitions of simple folk – and the many ways in which they can lead to tragedy. Kent came across the real event in her research for Burial Rites – the story of an aged woman whose defence for murder was based upon her belief that the murdered boy was but a changeling and thus she should not be held accountable. While it is easy to believe this is madness or an excuse for cold-blooded murder, once again Kent creates real human warmth and invites readers to feel sympathy or at least acknowledge the complexity of such cases.

Beautiful prose, complex but real characters and thought-provoking ideas about being a woman in a backwards time make The Good People another likely best-seller. I challenge anyone who loved Burial Rites to not see this as yet another demonstration of Kent as one of the greatest writers of our time.

Yes, I know I’m gushing. But this is worth getting excited about. Comes out in October.

Book Review of The Last Painting of Sarah De Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos_ARC_FINAL MECH.inddAn intriguing and reasonably easy read, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos satisfies with two intertwined narratives.

One is the story of Sara de Vos, a fictional 17th century Dutch female painter and the tragic story of the loss or her daughter, and her subsequent abandonment by her husband.  It’s a moving tale and also an interesting glimpse into how difficult it was to pursue your talents of a woman of this time – even one as exceptional as Sara is portrayed to be.

Interspersed with this is the story of a forgery.  Ellie Shipley, a talented but unappreciated art historian and restorationist is flattered by the offer to ‘copy’ De Vos’ ‘At The Edge of a Wood’ for insurance purposes – and despite the unusual circumstances of the deal, accepts as a way to prove her skills.  Eventually she comes to realise she is creating an elaborate copy for the black market – but by this point she is so engrossed with perfecting the project she cannot stop herself.

The owner of the original – Martin De Groot – uses a private investigator to find Ellie, but his plan to confront her with the truth is thwarted by his growing attraction for the solitary Shipley.

Many, many years later, the two are reunited again when two copies of ‘At The Edge of a Wood’ are sourced for an Australian exhibition.

Some beautiful storytelling and interesting questions raised about the value of art – and the value of a meticulous copy.  Definitely worth a look.

Book Review of The Noise of Time

Many people rave about Julian Barnes, and indeed winning a Mnoise_cape_150x225an Booker Prize tends to suggest you are brilliant at what you do. But I have at times struggled with his slow pacing and prose. At university I did not enjoy Flaubert’s Parrot, although a few years ago I did enjoy The Sense of an Ending, which admittedly I read on audio, which does tend to disguise or minimise pacing issues.

I was sent a review copy of his new novel – the first since the Booker – The Noise of Time. The concept is fascinating. Set his story in communist Russia, The Noise of Time is a painstaking fictional recreation of the life of real-life composer Dmitri Shostakovich, focussing specifically on the role of the political of the artists of the time.

Shostakovich was not ideological and resented the interference of the government on the lives of artists at the time. However, without political support, an artist was guaranteed obscurity and even in some cases, death. Shostakovich’s life is a series of compromises until he finally does not recognise the man riding around in a town car with political clout and overwhelming success. But it was a hard road, and many times Shostakovich feared for his life.

Despite these wonderful ideas and the human expression of the pressure to become part of the political propaganda machine, I found myself drifting off often during the novel, which failed to hold my interest in the way it really should have. This was hard work. But in the end, it was work worth doing. This is thoughtful and satisfying if you can make it to the end.