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imageWinner of the 2014 Nordic Council Award
Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

I was rooting for this novel to lift the Petrona Award (for best Scandi Crime novel) on Saturday night, but it was not to be.  All I can say is that the winner (which I will be making a beeline for) must be utterly fantastic because The Wednesday Club was one of the most satisfying reads of 2017 to date.

It’s not your standard crime novel. In fact, after the prologue, in which Claes Thune’s secretary, Matilda Wiik goes missing, there’s no mention of the police for another 300 pages! Instead the narrative rolls back eight months to describe the events leading up to the disappearance.

Set in Helsinki 1938, following the Austrian Anschluss, it documents the unrest and tensions arising in Finland through the eyes and attitudes of Claes Thune’s fellow members of the Wednesday Club, a group that meets once a month to drink lots of liquor (!) and to debate issues of the day. Long-standing friendships mean that there is no rancour when disagreements arise. It is very civilised. For the sake of the group, Thune even swallows his pride when one of them runs away with his wife! And yet at this critical point in time, political attitudes are diverging and hardening. The group’s cohesion begins to weaken, and division becomes inevitable.

This group of gentlement works as a microcosm of society. There are Nazi sympathisers, supporters of appeasement, adherents of resistance and others, like Claes Thune who seem to be as bemused politically as he is personally. Hoping for the best. And there is the Jew, Joachim Jary, destined to be the victim, not only because of his race, but because of his chronic depression. His illness enables a disquietening discussion on the Nazi rationale for euthanasia of the disabled.

All of which is not necessarily specifically Finnish. The novel becomes so through the revelations of Mrs Wiik’s history. She’s a woman with a past she would love to forget and keen to keep secret. Why? Because 20 years previously she was on the wrong side of history, finding herself on the losing Red side of the Finnish Civil War. Even now this counts against her even though she was punished for it at the time with internment in a concentration camp, where unspeakable things happened to her. Yet her memories flood back, when she hears the voice of her persecutor on the night she works late to deliver drinks to the Wednesday Club.

And while she recognises him, he doesn’t recognise her, leaving the way free for her to plan a leisurely revenge. The identity of the man and how Mrs Wiik’s intends to revenge herself are the mysteries at the heart of this novel, both solved, along with her disappearance, only in the final 5 pages.

I didn’t see any of it coming, possibly because I found the historical revelations alongside their warnings for our future fascinating; the characterisation equally so.  Westö’s characters are not ciphers, one dimensional representations of political viewpoints; they are fully human with the capacity to surprise, by acting in ways contrary to their utterances.

So even though I now know the outcome, this is a historical crime novel with sufficient depth to fully repay a reread or two.  It is, in summary, quite brilliant!

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I’m taking a different approach to literary festivals this year.  Pre-festival I’m going to read some of the books I’ve bought in previous years.  That way new festival purchases won’t simply get added to the old ones, and the overall effect on the TBR should be a zero increase rate.  That’s the theory anyway.  I’ll test it out with Ayewrite! which is just one month away.

First up is the book I bought following one of the best events I’ve ever attended at Ayewrite. The year was 2015 and Chris Dolan chaired an event entitled My Era is better than Yours!  3 authors were asked to pitch their chosen eras to the audience, which then voted on the one which appealed most.  The choice was between Tudor England (Rory Clements), The English Civil War (Michael Arnold) or Georgian England (Antonia Hodgson). I forget the way the public vote went but I came out and bought Antonia Hodgson’s debut, for which she won the 2014 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger.

imageI was intrigued by a crime novel set in the notorious debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Not the Marshalsea brought to life in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, but the previous iteration – a place where the governor was so violent, he could act with impunity, (whipping prisoners to death, chaining them to corpses as punishment, etc) because as long as the place made a profit, its aristocratic owner didn’t really care what went on behind the gates.

So how could anyone make a profit in a debtor’s prison?  Because the debtors had to pay for food and lodgings and any other services that might be rendered. If they couldn’t, they were removed from the gentleman’s area and thrown into The Common Side, a squalid hell on earth, where gaol fever  (typhus) ran rampant and survival was improbable.

When Tom Hawkins lands in the Marshalsea for a £10 debt, it is a place in crisis.  The recent death of debtor Captain Roberts has been deemed a suicide (although his hanged body bears evidence of a severe beating), and now his ghost haunts the place.  His widow remains in situ, determined to discover her husband’s murderer.  This is not good for the reputation of the prison’s aristocratic owner.  So when Tom, having made an enemy of the governor, finds himself almost at death’s door, he is happy to come to an arrangement with the authorities.  If he can identify Captain Roberts’s murderer, his debt will be repaid and he will find himself a free man once more.

Little does he know what he’s let himself in for ….

The danger to Tom’s life and limb in the Marshalsea is palpable – whether it be from smallpox or typhus, corrupt officialdom, government spies or his roommate , Samuel Fleet, widely suspected of being the murderer.  Not that I cared much for Tom at first.  He’s the malcreant son of a vicar, reaping what he has sown through wine, women and gambling. Though not yet entirely without conscience, he hasn’t forgotten the meaning of charity and loyalty.  Personal betrayal was not a word in his vocabulary, but 4 days in the Marshalsea will etch it on his soul forever.

While the plot is good, the historical detail is a masterclass.  Hodgson shows how the Marshalsea had a microcosmic economy of its own.  There were those who, having established successful businesses which enabled them to pay off their debt, chose to remain within the confines of the prison walls.   The mix of fictional and historical characters is interesting also: the governor and most of the wardens and lawyers were real enough and their histories are included in an appendix.  So too was the infamous Moll King, mistress of the den of iniquity  coffee house Tom chose to frequent, which featured in the painting Morning by William Hogarth. That’s the world waiting for Tom, should he escape the Marshalsea: dirty, ribald, just as immoral and treacherous.  Hodgson paints the reality of that Hogarthian London too. It’s somewhat of an eye-opener to say the least!

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This novel is as luscious as its cover!

Last year I very much enjoyed Gavin MCrea’s Mrs Engels – the story of Friedrich Engel’s mainly invisible-to-posterity female companion. That was a novel written very much into the spaces left by history. Czerkawska’s fictionalisation of the life of Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burn’s has more historical backup. Nevertheless, in writing from Jeanny’s point-of-view, the talents, strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s national bard are seen through the subjective eyes of the young girl who fell in love with him and never stopped loving him until her dying day, and that despite the hard times, repeated infidelities, and a widowhood that lasted 38 years.

What did he do to deserve it?  I was shaking my head at times, but then, times were different in 18th century Ayrshire, and Jeanny’s options were limited – particularly after falling pregnant to Burns, not once, but twice outside of wedlock. The wedlock status, it turns out, can be debated.  Certainly the civil arrangements that Burns had put in place were not recognised by her parents during the first pregnancy.  They loathed him.  He had no morals, no money and no prospects at that time, and so Jeanny’s parents packed her off to relatives in Paisley.  At which point Burns felt deserted and started the affair with Highland Mary, a rebound relationship, not only for him, but for her.  Just one of the many surprises in the twists and turns and emotional anguish that were endured before Burns and Jeanny were recognised as man and wife.

Not that the anguish abated.  9 children, only 3 of whom survived to adulthood.  Adopting her husband’s illegitimate daughter.  Recognition of her husband’s poetic talents brought fame, no fortune, but plenty of opportunity for further amorous adventures.  And pain when their private lives were put on show in his published poetry.  Further pain and humiliation when poems about his other women were published.  Czerkawska’s novel makes the emotional cost to Jean Armour of Burns’s success all too clear.

But, as we say in Scotland, she was some woman…. with an amazing generosity of spirit. She was Burns’s feet-on-the-ground anchor in Ayrshire.  Not without artistic talent of her own either.  She had a wonderful singing voice and the ballads that she learnt from her mother were the source of much of Burns’s material.  It’s no wonder Burns genuinely loved her (as best he was able.) She was the Belle of the Belles of Mauchline to him, his jewel, and his pet name for her was “mae wee lintie” (songbird).  In tribute to her, he included a woodlark on his personal seal.

The choice of an omniscient 3rd-person narrative gives the author freedom to include descriptive passages, conversations, and conjectures in a much more natural way than a 1st-person narrative would have done. The narrator doesn’t intrude for the most part.  (Except with one she’ll rue the day type statement after the couple’s first reconciliation.)  The dialogue has a distinctive Scottish cadence using local vocabulary of the time. It rings true, and there is a useful glossary at the back for non-Scots (like me).

Each chapter is headed by a short excerpt from one of Burn’s poems, relevant to forthcoming events.  I found this an effective way of showing the sublimation of life into art. Behind some of those poems are events that are often anything but sublime. Also people made invisible due to the brightness of their spouses’s star. Such as Jean Armour.  Czerkawska’s novel certainly brings her out of the shadows to give her the credit that is due. It also confirms that, when Burns chose her, he chose well.

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To the victor the spoils they say, and in terms of historical reputation, Johannes Gutenberg was the conqueror.  Inventor of the first moveable type printing press and publisher of the first book – the Gutenberg Bible – or so established history would have me believe.  A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the final destination of my Germany 2016 mini-tour, and a reading of Alix Christie’s 2014 historical novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, opened my eyes to other possibilites.

Gutenberg didn’t invent moveable type.  That was invented about 4 centuries earlier in China by Bi Sheng using ceramic plates.  Moveable metal type was then developed in Korea.  What Gutenberg developed (because he had no prior knowledge of these Eastern systems) was a method of casting reusable metal type from a mould. The letters, together with his printing press, constituted the typographical system that proved to be the greatest invention since the wheel.  There has been nothing of similar importance until the invention of the internet.

imageThere I go, giving Gutenberg all the credit. Yet was this achievement really all his own, or should the roles of his financier, Johann Fust, and his apprentice Peter Schoeffer not be recognised also? They certainly are in Christie’s novel which is narrated by Schoeffer, looking back on the events of 1450-1455.

In 1450 Schoeffer is called back from his training as a calligrapher and engraver by his guardian, Johann Fust, to be apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg.  Of course, he is resentful.  This new-fangled technology is going to destroy his career, and besides, mass production will never be able to able to produce books as beautiful as those made by hand.  Well events are to prove him wrong but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Christie takes us into the workshop and shows us the struggles that the team had: the technical struggles, the trial and error involved in finding the perfect alloy of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe that could not be improved upon for 500 years); the personal struggles resulting from the long hours; the political struggles that needed negotiation and the absolute secrecy that had to be maintained for 5 years to prevent the Archbishop of Mainz from confiscating the press; the personality clashes arising because Gutenberg was not the saint that we perhaps think he was ; and finally, the financial problems that contributed to the court case in which Gutenberg was forced to hand over his press to Fust.

Was that the real reason for the rift between the two partners? The facts are hard to establish as only a fragment of the court papers remains.  There is a school of thought  that Fust and Schoeffer (who testified against Gutenberg) had always planned to seize control of the press. This novel does not subscribe to that view and interprets events in an entirely different but thoroughly plausible way.  Although, with hindsight and with Schoeffer as apologist, that shouldn’t be so surprising.

Although, having no prior knowledge of these events, this took me completely by surprise and I found myself turning the pages ever faster.  It also ensured that I entered the Gutenberg Museum looking for evidence of Christie’s hypothesis. Naturally I found only the historical version of events – i.e the fragment from the court papers and only a couple of mentions of both Fust and Schoeffer.

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To beautiful books!

This saddened me as I’d grown quite fond of the latter, who, following his apprenticeship with Gutenberg, went on to publish the Mainz Psalter, generally recognised to be the most beautiful book ever published. (Note to self – must find one and visit.) Still I was gratified to learn later that Mainz hasn’t forgotten him entirely, and I can verify that the wheat beer that bears his name is as refreshing as it looks!

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Now if I were handing out a prize for most entertaining narrator on this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, Lizzie Burns, protagonist and narrator of Mrs Engels, would win hands down.  She’s a real character.  How’s this for an opener ….

No one understands men more than the women they don’t marry and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.  It’s no matter what line he’s in or which ideas he follows, whether he is sweet-tempered or ready-witted, a dab at one business or the next, for there isn’t so much in any of that, and you won’t find a man that hasn’t something against him.  What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping  – is the mint that jingles in his pockets.  In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.

Her outlook, which when you consider that Lizzie, a working-class Irish girl, is the unmarried Mrs Engels of the title, shacked up with the exceedingly rich, cotton-mill owning Mr Friedrich Engels but still pining for her poor former Irish lover, explains a lot.  (Even if it doesn’t explain her ongoing desire for the latter given the legacy of that relationship.)  The further into the novel we go, the more unconventional and complex Lizzie’s domestic arrangements become.  Without the wedding ring, there is only so much that Lizzie can do in Victorian society, but she is a force to reckon with, a pillar of strength for Engels, the smoother of many obstacles and embarrassments.  Yet she has to put up with Karl Marx, a rival who takes all of Friedrich’s time and a lot of his money.  Worse still, his wife, Jenny, towards whom she feels a natural antipathy, not unrelated to the history of Lizzie’s sister, Mary, Lizzie’s predecessor to Engels’s affections.  But put up with her she must, and also with Engels’s sometimes high-handed approach, if she wants to continue enjoying his wealth in their “grand” house in Primrose Hill.  Otherwise it’s back to the Manchester slums for her.

Through her not-so-convinced eyes we see the birth of Marxism.  And it’s a revelation, I must say.  The portraits of Marx and Engels as political theorists are not always flattering, and Jenny Marx comes across in places as Mrs Bennett reincarnated.  Nor are the French comunards, displaced by the failure of their 1871 uprising,  and seeking refuge in London, a sympathetic crowd. Fine clothes and wine, their particular weaknesses.

Shifting between the present life in Primrose Hill and her earlier impoverished life in the Manchester factory, Lizzie’s narrative is always honest, graphic, and in places very down to earth.  Even the pragmatist she accepts some real blows with a shrug of her shoulders.  I suspect the reigniting of the affair with her Irish pro-Fenian lover is fuelled more by rebellion than by affection.

How much of Lizzie is the real woman?  Impossible to say because the real Lizzie Burns was illiterate, and so has left no written records.  Engels, of course, had other things to write about other than his partner who died at 40 and who he refused to marry until she lay on her death bed. (But at least he made an honest woman of her in the end.)  McCrea has, therefore, written into the gaps of the historical record, and not only created a credible  record of what might be true but an absorbing novel to boot.

Mrs Engels was my fourth read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, and the first I thought would make a worthy winner.  Will book 5 A Place Called Winter or book 6 Tightrope snatch the shadow trophy from McCrae’s hands?  All to be revealed before Saturday’s official award ceremony …….

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

This is the title on the shortlist I was anticipating the most.  Billed as the companion piece to Any Human Heart and blurbed as the best thing Boyd has ever written, it had a lot to live up to, particularly as Any Human Heart is IMO a masterpiece.

Amory Clay is the female counterpart to Logan Mountstewart.  She’s born in 1908 and dies in 1983, so sees most of the C20th.  Her profession as photographer is useful.   It allows Boyd to move her around the globe to many of the C20th hotspots.  She starts off as a society photographer with her uncle, who advises her to create a scandal to make her name known.  Cue move to the louche Berlin of the 1930s.  The resulting pictures are too effective.  Following an obscenity trial, her reputation is in shatters.  To restart her career, she needs to move to the States,  sponsored by the man destined to become her employer, lover and long-term protector.  There follow sojourns in France during WWII as a rather uncourageous war photographer, in Scotland as part of the landed gentry during the 1950s, another stint as a war photographer during Vietnam, after which her final years are spent living alone with her dog back on the West Coast of Scotland.

There’s a lot happening on this world stage, and Amory Clay’s personal life is just as eventful! As if dalliances with her married employer and a French writer, marriage with a Scottish Lord were not enough, Amory’s life still has time for final adventure chasing after her AWOL daughter to an American commune. At 447 pages, this is one of the longest novels of the Walter Scott Shortlist, and it is also the quickest read.

Boyd loves to mix his books with other art forms and so here the chosen medium is photography. Scattered among the text are photographs, purporting to be those taken by Amory Clay. Now I haven’t heard Boyd speak, nor have I read any interviews about this novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him finding a cache of unaccredited (and not always brilliant) photographs around which he has seamlessly woven his tale.  (Aaah, look what I just found.)

A key question for the success of this novel is whether Amory Clay feels authentic. She does in most things:  discovery of the carnal coinciding with the slackening of moral restraint in the C20th,  lack of courage at the front line and her honesty about it,  falling for men who are not emotionally the best choice, the  sometimes distant relationship with her daughters. Her forgiveness of her father stretched my credulity somewhat (No hints here, it’s a major plot feature.) I particularly enjoyed her analysis of light.

 I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon ….

Much to enjoy, therefore, but nothing that had me as a reader firing on all cylinders. Why ever not? Let me be clear. Sweet Caress is a good novel and a vast improvement on the last Boyd I read. (In fact, Waiting for Sunrise had me thinking that I wouldn’t bother reading any more.) But I had been led to expect something on a par with Any Human Heart and so I was waiting for the sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm of the dog food moment. It was perhaps unfair of me to do so.

 

 

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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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