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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

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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Edinburgh International Book Festival 16.08.2012

Question to Allan Massie: How do you think you would have responded as a French man in occupied France during the early 1940’s?

Allan Massie: I would have been a tepid collaborator.

He stressed that the French believed that the war had been lost and that the only recourse was to make the best of it, particularly as they never thought that Britain would carry on fighting. Resistance to the Nazis only started in France when Hitler invaded Russia and was so long in coming because the Germans were instructed to behave correctly in France, which they did until about 1943-44.

Why the history lesson? Because Massie, a modern day Scottish polymath, author of some 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction, has turned his attention to historical crime writing. Vichy France has long fascinated him. In 1989 he published the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year A Question of Loyalties, which is also set there.

One of his objectives is to show that pleasant things happen even during a war. People try to live normal lives. It is remarkable, he said, that Kafka never mentioned World War I in his diaries. And so his characters, living in occupied Bordeaux, come to terms with the political situation. They raise families, enjoy good food and wine (when they can get it), fall in love, read excellent literature! In the first of the series Death In Bordeaux, the French surrender and the establishment of occupied sector is a matter of hope for Lannes and his wife, whose eldest son, is a prisoner of war in Germany. These new circumstances may mean his release.

Of course, nasty things do happen and Lannes finds himself investigating a rather sordid murder which sees him having to pit himself against degenerate members of the French elite and influential Vichy apologists. Crime fiction fans will recognise familiar tropes and be delighted by the subtle reconfiguration: Lannes, although living with his wife, is estranged from her because of her distress at her son’s absence; his relationship with his superior, excellent at the start, begins to fracture over the issues of collaboration and compromise.

These vexed issues grow thorns in the second novel, Dark Summer In Bordeaux, as people sicken of “this war that is not being fought”. The characters begin to polarise in their opinions with Lannes’s sons taking opposing stances. One leaves to take up a position in Vichy France, the other to join de Gaulle’s fledgling resistance. Interestingly Massie said they were both admirable characters. They just have different ideas and ideals. That non-judgmental attitude carries over into the writing with the reader being able to understand the rationale of both. Poor Lannes is literally stuck in the middle, a man whose sympathies lie with his “musketeer” son yet a servant of the establishment, seeking to preserve his integrity in the face of extraordinary political pressures, which, one can only assume, are going to intensify as the Vichy years progress. You have to sympathise when he longs for a “an old-fashioned, pre-war murder” i.e one that he solve without political interference and admire him for his resolution to some of the occupiers’ demands.

There’s no denying it. The clouds are darkening in Dark Summer in Bordeaux. The thunderstorm approaches and while that may be bad news for Lannes (and I admit, knowing where this goes historically, I am beginning to worry on his behalf), the good news for me is that Massie’s original trilogy has now become a quartet. Cheekily he said he would write more, if he were approached with regard to a TV series. Thought I’d pass the message on as I wish someone would start talking to the man now!

Death In Bordeaux / Dark Summer in Bordeaux

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Hilary Mantel 14.08.2012

She’s here …. at last!

The EIBF isn’t pure undiluted pleasure, you know. It comes with horribly anxious moments for someone who cannot access the online ticket facility on the day the box office opens and who knows that plan A i.e buy own ticket, just won’t cut it. This was the event I was not prepared to miss and it took twitterish machinations, of which Thomas Cromwell himself would be proud, to ensure that I was able to take my seat on the night. (As it transpired both plans B and C bore fruit … no matter, I was taking no chances.) Herewith profuse thanks to my fellow conspirators.

Let joy be unconfined!

So it may surprise you that this report will not be a full one. Most of the proceedings have already been recorded in the reports at Every Book Has A Soul, Cornflower, plus the transcription of the author’s words in the Guardian. I’m going to concentrate on the efforts of the unsung hero of this event, chairperson and novelist James Runcie, which turned what was always going to be a great event into something extraordinary.

Starting with the assumption that everyone in the audience had read the book freed him from discussing the novel Bring Up The Bodies superficially. Instead, after Hilary Mantel had read the scene in which Henry falls in love with Jane Seymour (pages 26-29), Runcie concentrated on matters of technique, for instance:

– Use of pronouns. He (paragraph 1) becomes you (paragraph 6) becomes we (paragraph 14). Yes, said Hilary Mantel, I want to bring the reader into the time and place of Henry’s entourage. I want the reader to be there with them, moving forward with imperfect knowledge into an unknown future. I want the reader to see through Cromwell’s eyes, not to judge with hindsight but to make decisions with him and to conclude that they would have acted in the same way.

– The modern vibrancy of a text infused with Shakespearian effects from the high language of rhetoric to the crudity of the servants in Cromwell’s kitchen.

– The particular inspiration of Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2 in which Mark Anthony through rhetoric turns a crowd into a mob. Mantel particularly fascinated with spin and transformation building, she said, turning points in every scene – even the quiet ones. It is her way of dealing with historical inevitability. The reader already knows the end but not the torturous way it is arrived at.

– The focus on reducing units of time as Anne Boleyn’s life comes to an end: from days to hours to minutes to seconds. Anne’s hope of a reprieve was realistic. Henry was capricious.

The time for audience questions came too soon. Don’t worry, said James Runcie, if you have no questions, I can go on. I wish he had. I could have listened to this kind of textual analysis for the full 17 days of the festival.

The big question: Is the book any good?

Do you still need convincing? It is brilliant, though when I first read it, I thought not as good as Wolf Hall. I was chastised in the kindest way at the event, although I still maintain, perhaps churlishly, that in reacting to her critics and simplifying the text by clarifying who He is, Mantel has penned some clumsy insertions of the He, Cromwell kind.

My biggest issue is that Bring Up The Bodies acts as a revisionist history – a veritable wobble in my glass. Prior to reading this, feisty Anne Boleyn, was my favourite of Henry’s queens – probably based on the classic and sympathetic figure in Anne of A Thousand Days. Well, there’s nothing sympathetic in these pages. In fact, it is a portrait laced with Cromwellian venom. On page 38 he describes her thus:

Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tynburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.

As events progress, an emnity develops between Anne and the man who made her. One that culminates in a kill or be killed standoff. We all know the ultimate victor in this and how he gained the victory. But perhaps we’re not aware of just how calculating Cromwell was in seizing a half-truth to bring down a queen. We are after reading this. Anne may have been indiscrete, vengeful and ultimately unlikeable, but she was not Catherine-Howard-stupid. As one convinced of Anne’s innocence and, therefore, the innocence of the men who were sacrificed to Cromwell’s political objective/personal vendetta, I’m not capable of suspending my moral judgement in the way Mantel wishes. It is actually quite chilling though, just how reasonable Cromwell’s murderous thought processes become when reading these pages.

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Despite my growing unease, let us tarry a little while longer in Venice ….

Winner of the Strega Prize 2009

Published by Serpent’s Tail

Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Everyone, but everyone has heard parts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (even if only while holding on the phone).  What they may not know – like me –  is the context in which they were written.

Stabat Mater offers insights into the life of the orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà, many of whom were skilled musicians kept segregated from the world.  When giving concerts in church, they were hidden behind metals grills. When travelling through the city to play for their benefactors, they remained veiled.  This was dictated by the shame of their births.  (Many were the unwanted children of the city’s prostitutes)  Their education contained similar contradictions:  progressive in regard to their musical education, yet rooted in the dark ages in other respects.

The narrator, Cecilia, 16, fantasises of escape through marriage or of her mother coming to reclaim her.  She is given to nocturnal wanderings,  always accompanied by a nightmarish Medusa-like figure of death.  During one of her nocturnal walks she witnesses a secret birth in the toilets in the basement of the orphanage.  This is her initiation into the origins of  life and it sows her jaundiced view of mother-child relationships.  The epistolary form  – this is the letter which Cecilia writes to her unknown mother – allows for full and honest expression of her emotions, which like the notes from her violin soar from the ecstatic to the depths of her jaundiced and claustrophobic existence.

Children spring from their mothers’ bellies and burst out crying, still terrifed by what they’ve abandoned, the death they’ve escaped.  They’re body-parts of the mother who flees from them. 

Mothers try to keep them bound to themselves, they hold them back when they are born, but the babies escape anyway, so the disappointed mothers take their revenge, they incite death against them, the rope that holds them back becomes the snake that bites their little belly and injects it with deadly poison.  They too are marked, they were innoculated with their fate in the womb.  The snake is pulled away, but in the middle of their bodies children bear a mother-scar, a death-scar, forever.

When Vivaldi replaces the worn-out composer-priest of the first half of the novel, Cecilia’s mood – and that of the novel – lightens.  Vivaldi’s refreshing compositions break boundaries and open up new musical horizons.  Vivaldi recognises Cecilia’s musical talent and becomes a personal mentor, relieving some of her solitude.  Yet in a dark incident (darkness is never far away in this pages) he also teaches her the importance of personal experience for musical interpretation.   He also promises her that

I will make you play the most intoxicating pieces, you will shake people’s souls in their foundations, that point at which our self dissolves into something coinciding with the vibrations of the cosmos.  

Cecilia’s part of the bargain is to remain in the convent, anonymous yet world-famous behind the metal grilles. Is Vivaldi’s promise sufficiently enticing for one already aware that she is buried alive in a delicate coffin of music?

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