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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

And so to the finale of Allan Massie’s atmospheric crime quartet set in Vichy France. (Parts 1 and 2 are reviewed here, Part 3 here.). It is the early summer of 1944. The Germans have lost the war and the allied invasion is expected, eagerly or with apprehension depending on the choices made during the Occupation. For Superintendent Lannes the end can’t come quickly enough, even though his family will suffer one way or the other, given that one son is happily working for Vichy France, the other has joined the free French and his daughter has fallen in love with a fully-fledged German sympathiser, now fighting in Hitler’s  army. For himself, Lannes just wants to be able to work again, free from political interference. At the beginning of this novel, however, he is suspended at the order of the Germans – he’s paying the price for doing the morally right thing in the previous novel.

But he is not bitter. He understands that his boss Schnyder was simply being expedient “determined to survive, however things turned out.” He is suffering from ennui, however, and so when he is approached by the Count of St. Hilaire to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece, he accepts. The case brings him into contact with the real bogey man of the quartet, the lawyer Labiche. Throughout the quartet Lannes has crossed swords with Labiche multiple times, and with the end of the Occupation in sight, Lannes senses his chance for revenge.

Continuing to tread the streets of Bordeaux, Lannes meets the circle of friends and adversaries that have populated the previous three novels, and I do think that this may be confusing to those coming to End Games without prior knowledge. This is one series where I would advise starting at Book One. That way the jumps to the parallel lives of Lannes’s sons and Michel, his daughter’s lover, will not disconcert. Nor will their purpose. Not a single one of them comes out of the other side with their ideals intact ….

… and even Lannes, desperate to be free from intolerable political pressures, has to recognise that the time has not yet come. Now that the Boches have gone, justice will have new masters. In the words of Judge Bracal:

For four years the prevailing wind has come from Vichy. Now the wind has shifted. It blows with the Resistance, and … for weeks and perhaps months to come, the Law will be whatever the Resistance says it is.

I have followed Lannes during the dark years trying to uphold justice in the face of Vichy/Nazi law. He has at least tried to maintain his own integrity. He has not always succeeded. Finding now that similar struggles will continue through the Expiation and beyond,  he is finally embittered and filled with hatred for the hypocrises of his fellow countrymen.  Rising above it all is sometimes an impossible task.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

You can always tell when the weather’s good in Scotland – this blog goes quiet. (Good days are too precious to waste inside on the computer.) However, normal service has been resumed, and I am once again sheltering inside. Time to start on the Walter Scott shortlist, which I shall attempt to read in its entirety before the winner’s announcement is made on 18th June.

Let’s start with the only lady on the list, and a novel that is curiously not available in the UK. I had to import the book from Australia to read it. At least this made me realise how lucky we are in the UK, where books are more reasonably priced ….

Salt Creek is Lucy Treloar’s debut novel which has also been longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin award. It is set primarily in 1855 in the Coorong, a remote and inhospitable coastal region in Southern Australia. Stanton Finch, following a failed business venture, refuses to accept charity from his wealthy in-laws and moves his family to establish a dairy farm in Salt Creek. The fact that he must build his new home from driftwood, the remnants of ship-wrecked vessels, is presentiment enough for what is to follow.

Neither climate nor pasture are ideal – salt from the sea permeates the landscape. So the odds are stacked again Stanton Finch, who besides having no business sense, does not understand the ecology. Unlike the Ngarrindjeri, the aboriginal tribe who are about to be displaced – though not in a violent clash of cultures. This is a gradual dispossession – though sickness brought by the settlers, and a betrayal of Stanton Finch’s values by Stanton Finch himself who believes himself to be an enlightened Christian man ascribing to the maxim that all men are born equal. With that in mind he sets out to help the Ngarrindjeri, with gifts of food and clothing, protecting their fresh water supplies, and he semi-adopts an aboriginal child, inviting Tull into his home to educate him, the hope being that Tull will spread the values of civilisation through his own people.

Which is all very well until life deals him one blow after the next. A stubborn man, Stanton Finch exacts the price of each failure on his family. When Tull makes the naive mistake of believing himself to be equal, the despot in Stanton Finch rises while the downward spiral accelerates, shattering any remaining semblance of family cohesion. The family saga (and saga it is – perhaps a little too domestic for my taste) is told in retrospect by Hester, Stanton Finch’s eldest daughter. The harsh years at Salt Creek are the formative years for her and her siblings, and the place one they must escape if they are not to descend to the depths of their father. Not all of them do.

This is not your standard pioneering tale – a tale of man waging a successful battle against the elements, of “civilising” those who have no need of it. Rather it is anti-heroic, a “decivilisation” if you will. There are no miracles, just harsh realities depicting the self-deception of the settlers, with hard questions asked of their Victorian world view.

The role of hero in these pages is reserved for the landscape. As Treloar notes in her acknowledgements, The Coroong is strange and secluded and grand enough to humble. That’s a lesson that the presumptious Stanton Finch must learn very much to his cost.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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imageI’ve never been happy with my review of Kehlmann’s Measuring The World from nine years ago. I always felt that I had been blindsided by the humour of the piece; that I hadn’t got to the core of things. In the years since, I have heard Kehlmann referee a translation duel and speak of the style he used – everything in indirect speech, putting a distance between reader and subject, endowing the action with a cinematic quality. I must read it in German, I thought. I still haven’t done that. However, as my second reading of Carol Brown Janeway’s fluid translation immediately followed my reading of Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, I returned to Kehlmann’s novel with fresh eyes.

But firstly let me say that Measuring the World has, in the intervening years, has lost none of its charm or entertainment value. It remains an absolute humdinger. However, knowing much more about the obsessive Alexander Humboldt gave me a better insight into Kehlmann’s talents. It is the historical novelist’s job to

a) show us the human reality that the historical record glosses over. Such as how impossible Humboldt must have been to live with. Poor Aimé Bonpland takes the brunt of this for 5 years in the South America wilderness. The man deserved a sainthood! Gauss, too, a curmudgeon, best left alone with his head in the clouds of higher mathematics.

b) condense the lives of the two greatest scientists of their time into just 260 pages. Their differing backgrounds, their radically different modus operandi, nothing to share but their genius and an incredible number of discoveries.

But to do so artistically, in a new, a novel way. I’ve already commented on the humour. Kehlmann also uses structure to good effect, starting his novel at the only time when the two men met before looping back into the past to tell their histories in parallel. (Demonstrating from the offset, the Gaussian theory of parallel lines meeting?) The literal highpoint of Humboldt’s career at 18,690 feet, at the point where a ravine stops Bonpland and himself from climbing to the summit of Mount Chimborazo. This episode occurs dead centre in the book. Not that everything was downhill for Humboldt after that, but he was never to experience the same exhilaration.

A novelist can also use poetic licence, concatenating events, perhaps even changing them for dramatic effect. I’m now suspicious of the electric eel adventure I highlighted in my first review as Andrea Wulf tells it differently. Humboldt and Bonpland sent horses into the pond of electric eels. Kehlmann emphasises how they used their own bodies. Which made me a little suspicious of Eugen Gauss’s calamitous experience in Berlin. Great for the novel but life surely couldn’t be that cruel? Facts, it seem, are somewhat different. Not that this detracts in iota from Kehlmann’s telling. Historical novelists are not oath-bound to tell the truth!

imageAnd so to the 2012 film starring Florian David Fitz as Gauss and Albrecht Schuch as Alexander von Humboldt. Interestingly Gauss taking centre stage on the DVD jacket. An indication that his story (the poor kid made good) was the more interesting and coherent on film. Humboldt’s more panoramic storyline more difficult to convey when confined to short episodic bursts. Some of these scenes, such as the hallucinations on Mount Chimborazo just didn’t work at all. That said, the film is a visual treat and the overlay of a narrator, not only necessary to hold it all together, but also a nod Kehlmann’s indirect narrative. A word of warning though. Watch only if you are a German speaker as half the English subtitles are missing!

My thanks to TJ at My Book Strings. Her choice of Kehlmann’s Measuring The World as #4 of 12 Germans for 2016 gave me the necessary push to revisit an old favourite. TJ’s review is here and Naomi at Consumed by Ink has also joined in here.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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It would be a shame to let 2015 pass without reviewing what was the longest literary experience of the year, both in terms of page count and time committment: 1696 pages which because I listened to the three unabridged audio books translated into 60 hours of listening over a period of 6 months.  (I only listen to audio books when I’m alone in the car.)

The Ibis Trilogy is Ghosh’s retelling of that infamous episode in British history, the first Opium War (1839- 1842). I still remember the incredulity I experienced when – it was years and years ago and I’m more worldly-wise now – I first heard that we fought a war to preserve our right to trade in hard drugs, so when Sea of Poppies was first published in 2008, with that beautiful dust jacket, it was added to the TBR right away.  Same thing happened with River of Smoke in 2011.  For some reason though, I didn’t make a start until the final part, Flood of Fire was published in 2015.

If that was a strategy, it worked well, because “reading” the three parts back to back let me appreciate the coherence of the whole in a way that may otherwise have been lost.  To summarise briefly:  Sea of Poppies shows the impact of the Opium trade on the little men, the people in The Bay of Bengal, who grow and manufacture the product; River of Smoke shifts primarily to the viewpoint of the traders, with growing resistance to the trade from the Chinese authorities; and in Flood of Fire all hell breaks loose!

imageBut let’s start at the beginning and admit that Sea of Poppies was not what I was expecting at all!  For some reason, I thought that most of the action would be on the Ibis – the ex-slaver – and at sea.  Not so, it is a leisurely gathering together of those who finally take to sea in the Ibis in the final chapters of the book.  The device  allows Ghosh to explore in detail the back stories of those that find themselves on board: the officers, the crew, and the indentured Indians on their way to work in the Sugar plantations in Mauritius.  And therein lies the emotional pull of this first part.  For amongst the passengers are Deeti and Neel; the former, the widow of a heroin addict, fleeing death on her husband’s funeral pyre.  Neel, once a wealthy rajah, is now being transported as a debtor after his creditors unscrupulously call in debts when he refuses to sell them some of his ancestral lands.  Much to his disgust, he shares his cabin/cell with a filthy Chinese heroine addict, and yet, the story  how Neel overcomes his prejudices, and not only helps but befriends Ah Fatt is one of the most humane subplots of the piece.  Among the officers, who in the main are as beastly and sadistic as you would expect, given that they are representatives of the British Empire, is a fine, young, honourable, American, named Zachary Reid.

These people, like the IBIS, form a backbone through the trilogy. Although, given that they all set off on the voyage to Mauritius, they all end up in different places.  A storm and a mutiny at sea take care of that!

imageRiver of Smoke introduces us to another ship, the Anahita, which is floundering in the same storm.  She is owned by Barum Modi, a Parsee business man.  Her hold is full of opium and it is crucial that this trip is successful, if Barum is to buy out his double-dealing brothers-in-law.  The storm does not augur well, nor do the times.  It is 1838, a year before the First Opium War, and the Chinese are beginning to crack down on the trade.  Luckily for Barum the Anahita and most of his cargo makes it through the storm to arrive in Canton.  As do Neel and Ah Fatt, who is Barum’s son by his Chinese mistress.  This revelation allows Ghosh to   inject a domestic drama – father and son are estranged – into the midst of intense commercial and political negotiations. Which are staggering  in their self-righteousness and hypocrisy to say the least.  Here in a nutshell is the British argument.

… the only offence cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade – and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of those laws that to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God’s commandments.

And yet, even though Barum is one of them, he became my favourite character in the trilogy, whereas Commissioner Lin, the bogeyman for the opium traders, became my favourite villain!   Who would have thought it.

imageI spent the pages of River of Smoke missing Zachary Reid.  I needn’t have worried.  I got more than enough of him,  his mistress, Mrs Burnham, and their sexual peccadilloes, during Flood of Fire.  Pages and pages – or hours and hours of listening, which I couldn’t fast forward.   Quite simply, too much information.  In my view, a miscalculation by Ghosh – I’m not sure what the point was beyond the fact that the C19th was as libidinous as the C21st.  What started as an affair of convenience though, did result in  real feelings, and Mrs Burnham did the best she could to turn Zachary into a successful man of his time.  She did a fabulous job and these pages see Zachary turn from a charming , honourable freshman into …..

…. a man of the times  …. a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”.  Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must be expected to be treated as such.

Something which bodes badly for Ah Fatt.  Of all the heinous acts in this trilogy, Zachary Reid’s treachery is the lowlight.  Although it’s hard to condemn him.  He has been remoulded by the opium trade to become a man of his time after all.

As I write this, I wonder if the Reid/Ah Fatt dynamic is metaphoric in some way …..

…. because this is where the British Empire finally strike the Chinese.  The first Opium War arrives and with it battle after battle, during which the Chinese are hopelessly outgunned and completely outmanoeuvred, despite outnumbering their foe.  We see the war up close through the eyes of Kesri Singh, an Indian soldier in the service of the British army (and brother of Deeti) and observed by a non-combatant in the diary of Neel Rattan, who following his stint with Barum, is now in the employ of the Chinese.

Ghosh’s narrative is incredibly detailed; the result of his prodigous research. Occasionally he  forgets not to let it show and the narrative sags as a result.  (The start of book two and botanic epistolary interludes.)  His ambition though is to recreate a panoramic overview of the world of that time and, in that he succeeds with a multi-national cast of dozens from all social strata, detailing not only the microcosms of their lives but also their languages, specialist vocabularies and dialects.  The linguistics were quite challenging as l listened – I feel sure that I wouldn’t have lost my way had I been reading.  Eventually I let it wash over me – I got the gist anyway …

… and I became as fond of Ghosh’s characters as the author himself.  Even if the ending can’t be a happy one for China (and Ah Fatt), things work out, as far as they can, for most who had a hard time on the Ibis in book one. For a significant number the Ibis plays a key role as she sails off into the distance at the end of book three, mirroring the way she sailed into view at the very beginning.   Neat it may be, but I can think of no more satisfying way to tie up almost one million words of great historical writing.

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The Walter Scott Prize released the 2015 longlist earlier this week.  It’s the first time they’ve done this, and I am delighted.  Also a little relieved because I’m feeling slightly out of kilter with the prize lists so far this year.  I had very little interest in the Costas and I have almost none in the Folio Prize Shortlist, so am happy that this list excites me.

The prize is in its 6th year and I have, thus far, read and written about all previous winners.  I intend to stick to that pattern even though I’m not committing to reading the whole longlist, or even the shortlist, when it appears. From the longlist, I’ve read 1, abandoned 2, and I will read the 4 in my TBR hoping that the winner comes from that selection. And maybe, because plenty of notice has been served, I might pick up one of two more titles once I’ve finished #tbr20.

In the meantime, here are 5 archive posts about past winners. All come highly recommended although the 2010 and 2013 winners are my personal favourites, and the 2015 winner is not only a historical novel but a cracking thriller as well!

2010 Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

2011 The Long Song – Andrea Levy

2012 On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry

2013 The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

2014 An Officer and A Spy – Robert Harris

2015 ???

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

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Shortlisted for the 2014 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

Two officers, arch-conservative and well-to-do, loyal to the French army and highly rationale.  Neither  particularly sympathetic. One is the anti-semitic Colonel Georges Picquart, head of the French secret service, who discovers that the other, the Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, already found guilty of spying and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, is innocent.  What is one to do after honest approaches to the top brass have resulted in exile to an African outpost and assignment to what is effectively a suicide mission?  Cast aside the doubts, defend yourself and become a whistleblower!

The seeds of An Officer and A Spy were sown while Harris was working on the script of his previous novel, The Ghost, with Roman Polanski.  Polanski commissioned him to write a script about the Dreyfus affair.  During the course of his research, Harris decided that he would rather write a novel. There is much more to the story than can be brought out in a film script.  Polanski agreed and besides, he’ll get a film adaptation out of it at a later date.

Robert Harris at the Summerhall Historical Fiction Fetival

The outcomes of the Dreyfus affair are well-known, and yet the novel is an absolute page-turner. (479 pages read in the course of a weekend.)  Picquart’s narrative is absolutely compelling, said Harris, at The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival, and to capitalise on that I wrote the novel in 1st person.  This places the reader inside Picquart’s mind and let’s them discover the actual spy and Dreyfus’s innocence in real-time so to speak.  I can confirm that this was a good decision because, as a reader, you also experience Picquart’s dilemma.  That he is a patriot, there can be no doubt.  Neither does he want to destroy the trust of the French people in the military, defender of French honour following the soul-destroying defeat to the Germans in 1870.  Yet there is higher justice whose call he cannot ignore …

… unlike Major Henri, who determines that honour demands unconditional support of the establishment. Any action that damages the reputation of the French army is traitorous. His mantra – tell me what to do and I’ll do it – or words to that effect.  Married  to the old code until death do them part, he is Picquart’s counterpoint.  The duel that the two fight isn’t just idealogical – at one point it is a physical 19th century duel with swords and seconds, ironically insisted upon by the man who is about to shatter 19th century values.

Harris said that he didn’t realise he had written a story about a whistleblower until he had finished (pre-Snowden) and he didn’t consciously emphasise contemporary resonances while he was writing.  Nevertheless the lessons to be learned from the Dreyfus affair are clear.  Justice must be seen to be done.  Corruption results when an institution polices itself, courts are held behind closed doors and decisions are based on the content of secret dossiers. (Insert your own 21st century example here.)  In addition, he said, the Dreyfus affair is a powerful argument for an unfettered press.  The ugly side – in Dreyfus’s case, the hysteria of the anti-semitic papers – was the price to be paid.  Without that freedom, Zola would never have been able to publish J’accuse and Dreyfus would have been left to rot on Devil’s Island.

4_stars.GIF

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Lesley McDowell’s novel, Unfashioned Creatures, came to my attention as one of The Literary Sofa’s  Hot Picks for 2014. As soon as I saw Füssli’s creepy Nightmare on the cover, I began to anticipate a very gothic tale of madness between the covers. 

I found one, too, although it is not the tale McDowell wanted to write originally.  Clare Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s half-sister and the mother of Lord Byron’s child was her original subject, but she found that Claire’s life is too well documented with insufficient gaps for the novelist’s imagination. (See footnote.) So McDowell found her inspiration in a 1823 meeting between Mary Shelley and her friend, Isabel Baxter Booth, which marked the end of a life-long friendship. Whatever happened? wondered McDowell.

Answer: The nightmare of Isabel’s marriage to a violent and deranged man; one who twists words and situations and insists that his wife is “disturbed in her reason”. She is losing her grip on reality, thanks to her little helper, the 19th century drug of choice, laudanum, and, thus, when she goes to see a psychiatrist about her husband, he judges her the patient! There’s something dodgy about this doctor as well. As the novel progresses, it’s possible to recognise many daemons crushing the life out of Isabel. (Cf Füssli’s painting)

Lesley McDowell at Aye Write 2014

The story is told alternately from the point of view of the psychiatrist Alexander Balfour and Isabel Baxter Booth. Whereas Isabel was a real person, Alexander was not.  He serves as a spokesman for early 19th century psychiatric theory and practice.  His 3rd person, clinical, dry and weighty point of view contrasts with the drama of Isabel’s 1st person emotional voice. Despite McDowell confessing to throwing away much of her research,  I thought that, in places, it was still obvious.  This is, however, a fascinating field.  Who knew that in the early 1820’s, Scotland was pioneering the development of more humane psychiatric practice?  The real historical mystery, McDowell said at her recent Aye Write! Event, is why Scotland didn’t produce a great nineteenth century psychiatrist. 

However, Alexander’s not just a representative of his profession. He has sufficient personality and backstory to make him interesting, if not likeable.  Nor is he the consummate professional.  Poor Isabella, cast between the devil of her husband and the devil of her doctor …. you can’t get more gothic than that!

 3stars.GIF

Footnote: McDowell has now written about Claire Clairmont on The Wordsworth and Romanticism Blog.

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