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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Here I am again breaking into a series. A Murder Unmentioned (2014) is the sixth in a series set mostly in New South Wales in the 1930s and featuring Rowland Sinclair. Although of course the story is self-contained, a number of the characters and their relationships have obviously been developed in earlier books, and I can’t help thinking that knowing that development might make them seem a bit more real.

Rowland Sinclair is the black sheep of a wealthy family of graziers. He lives an unconventional lifestyle in a mansion in Sydney where he dabbles in painting and takes up left wing causes with three bohemian friends who all seem to be members of the Communist Party. But a visit from the police sends him hurrying back to the family property, Oaklea, near Yass. It seems that his father’s death fourteen years ago, believed to be at the hands of a burglar, isn’t that simple. The reader already knows from the prologue that the burglar story is untrue. But now the gun which killed his father has been found in a dam on the property, along with some items which were believed to have been stolen at the time. So if not a burglar, then who? What motive has a former employee for casting suspicion on Rowland? And why is Rowland so unwilling to talk about it?

I think this novel is best seen as a family saga-cum-historical novel, rather than a crime story. Who killed Father is at the centre of it, but there are lots of family happenings that have only a general relevance to the main game – for example the machinations of Lucy Bennett, the fire at the homestead or Rowland’s sister-in-law Kate’s pregnancy. There is also a lot of material that is included because it is interesting, and of the period. The first chapter sees Rowland taking a flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, with a young Nancy Bird looking on. Everyone’s heard of Kingsford Smith, but some may not know that Nancy Bird was in fact the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence. These characters play no further part in the story – though Rowland’s flying does – so why introduce them, other than for historical interest? Rowland goes to a meeting of the NSW Centre Party, and has a run-in with Eric Campbell, who is trying to turn his fascist New Guard movement into a political party – without success, as it happens. Apparently Rowland has crossed swords with Campbell and his New Guard in earlier books, but it has only the most oblique relevance here. Edna Walling is redesigning the gardens at Oaklea, and Jock Garden of the Communist Party, Bob Menzies of the United Australia Party and Frank Green, Sydney gangster, all make an appearance.  Each chapter begins with what purports to be an excerpt from a newspaper of the time – though I’m not sure if all of them are genuine. All this historical detail is quite fun, but not really necessary in solving the crime. To put it another way, someone has to find the gun in the dam, but it doesn’t have to be Edna Walling.

Gentill has a fairly formal style of writing. I think this is a deliberate strategy when used in relation to conversations between the characters, where she tries, with some success, to catch the tone of relationships in the 1930’s between men and women, bosses and workers, family members and friends. Thus Rowland says of his painting: ‘My father would not have approved of my work … He would not have tolerated it.’ Or his brother Wilfred: ‘Kate was under the impression you admired her.’ Or Lucy’s father: ‘I knew your father, you know … fine man. I expect you’re cut from the same cloth.’ The 1930s feel is heightened by the similarly of the prose style to the newspaper excerpts. I don’t remember seeing the word ‘chums’ used in ordinary prose since I last read a Girl’s Own Annual. But there are too many clichés, such as ‘his jaw tightened’, ‘his eyes flashed fury’, or ‘his voice was thick with contempt’. Just because run-of-the-mill writers may have used such commonplaces in the 1930s doesn’t mean they should be used now in a book about the 1930s. By all means ensure that Rowland raises his hat to ladies, but don’t let it become a platitude.

I like history, so I found the story fun. There is always something of interest happening. Furthermore, the plot so far as it related to the death of Rowland’s father works well, though I thought the final resolution a bit contrived. If, however, I put on my historian’s hat, I’d have to wonder about the relationship between Rowland and his three friends – two male, one female. Apart from occasionally saying something about capitalist domination, the two men seem to lack the passion and conviction it would have taken to be a Communist. Their relationship seems more like Bunter to Wimsey than comrade to comrade (though Rowland is a fellow-traveller, not a paid up Communist). Putting in a lot of historical detail doesn’t of itself make a book genuinely reflect the history of the times. This is a nice try, rather than the creative reimagining at the heart of the best historical novels.

You can read more about Sulari Gentill and her work here. I love the book’s cover.

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I picked up Death and the Maiden (2011) for no better reason than I liked the title – Schubert’s string quartet No 14 in D minor of the same name is one of my favourites. In this book, however, it is the song Schubert wrote in 1817, for which the quartet is named and which is the theme of the second movement, that is being referred to – though in my view with doubtful relevance. I also discovered that this is not a stand-alone story; there are already five other stories featuring the main characters; the books are collectively referred to as the Liebermann Papers.

The story is set in Vienna in 1903. A singer from the court opera is found dead. Is it an accident, suicide, or murder? Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt of the Vienna security office is called in to investigate, and he is joined, as usual in this series, by his young friend Dr Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud. They find that the court opera is a hotbed of rumour and jealousy, in part aimed at the Director, Gustav Mahler. It seems that the Mayor of Vienna, the powerful demagogue Karl Lueger, may also be involved. Then there is the singer’s psychiatrist, who rejects Freud’s theories and has links with the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. Is it sex, or politics, or both that lie behind the singer’s death?

The turn of the century was obviously a fascinating time in Vienna, and Tallis makes frequent reference to contemporary events and movements. On one hand there is the intellectual ferment that produced the theories of Freud, the music of Mahler and the Secessionist movement in art and design. Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze gets a passing mention. Both Rheinhardt and Liebermann are musical – this may have been what brought them together in the first place – and there are lots of references to the music of Chopin, Mozart, Brahms and Mahler. Indeed there is a sub-plot involving the lives of two fictional musicians in which Liebermann unravels a mystery by reference to a composition by one of them. On the other hand there is political turmoil as the tottering Hapsburg Empire struggles against the nationalist forces tearing it apart, and demagogues like Lueger stir up popular discontent, often directing it into anti-Semitic channels. Apparently Lueger really did say ‘I decide who is a Jew’, though not in the context found in this story.

You’d hope with all this material to work with – both real and imagined – that Tallis would have produced an absorbing crime story. But the plot doesn’t really work for me. Some of what seem like non sequiturs– such as the scenes with Liebermann’s former fiancé – may be excused as making more sense in the context of the series. But Liebermann’s role is supposed to be central to the story. He is supposed to use theories about the subconscious as an investigative tool, on the premise that ‘guilty people are always giving themselves away – unconsciously’. Lieberman suggests Freudian motives (hysterical and oedipal) for several of the characters’ actions, but I don’t really find it convincing. His explanations are overly simplistic, and no more compelling than the theory the traditional doctor puts up that the singer had a weak nervous system. Tallis never lets the poor woman speak for herself. He makes the point that forensic science was making great strides just at the same time as psychoanalysis; the relatively new practice of autopsy is important in the story, as are some other forensic details. But overall, Rheinhardt doesn’t have much concrete evidence to go on, placing too much weight on the debatable influence of the subconscious.

Perhaps I would have responded better to all this if I felt the book was truly well written. It’s one of those cases where I find it hard to say just what was disappointing about the style. It’s perfectly adequate writing – but it just doesn’t go beyond that. Neither Rheinhardt nor Liebermann come alive for me, despite Tallis’s attempts to humanise them through music, food and family relationships. And Vienna doesn’t really come alive either; the details have a faintly researched air, rather than one of verisimilitude. This sense that Tallis may be trying too hard is summed up for me by the title. Rheinhardt sings and Liebermann plays Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, with an English translation that shows the maiden pleading with death to spare her, only to have death reply that she has nothing to fear and can sleep softly in his arms. There is no sense in which these sentiments are represented in the story – so why make it the title?

Overall, I didn’t hate it. I was just a bit disappointed that with such rich ingredients it didn’t turn out better. You can read more about Frank Tallis and the Liebermann Papers here. And you can listen to ‘Death and the Maiden’ here.

This is by no means the only crime novel in which Freud appears. Try, for example, The Interpretation of Murder (2007) by Jed Rubenfeld.

 

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This is the book I mentioned recently when reviewing Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (2012) – I wrote about it but forgot to post it at the time. So here it is now.

I suppose it had to happen, but it’s always disappointing to find you don’t respond warmly to a book by an author you normally admire. This is the case for me with Gentlemen of the Road (2007). Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favourite books; you can read my review here. And I’ve also recently enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; that’s reviewed here. But I just can’t get my head properly around this one, though I can see there is much to like.

The story, which is set in about 950 AD, concerns two Jewish wanderers who scratch a living by thieving, trickery and any other nefarious pastime that comes their way. One, Zelikman, is originally from what is now Germany, the other, Amram, is Abyssinian. They are at this time wandering in the Caucuses. Despite arguing over ‘whose definition of “easy money” was the least commensurate with lived experience’, they agree to transport a dispossessed and fugitive prince from neighbouring Khazaria back to his mother’s family in Azerbaijan, though he wishes to return to Khazaria to avenge himself on the usurper who has killed his parents. ‘A gentleman of the road worthy of the title would convey him to the nearest slave market and see what price he fetched,’ says Zelikman. ‘I fear that explains our overall lack of success at this game, Zelikman,’ says Amram. ‘Because I’m not going to do that.’ Unsurprisingly, fulfilling their agreement turns out to be even more difficult and dangerous than this cynical pair imagined.

To my ignorant surprise, Khazaria, ‘the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea’ turns out to have actually existed. Zelikman can hardly believe that there really is a place ‘where a Jew rules over other Jews as king’. Towards the end of the first millennium, the Khazars, whose settlements on the Volga formed a multicultural buffer between Christian Byzantium and the Islamic peoples of the East, adopted a form of Judaism, and welcomed persecuted Jews from both West and East. Jewish Radanite traders on the Silk Road were also welcomed there. I was even more surprised to find that the Rus referred to in the story were actually Vikings originally from Scandinavia; indeed the Rus eventually defeated the Khazars and seized their land, becoming in time ‘Russians’.

I think that my unfamiliarity with the history and geography of the region underlies the problem I had with the book. With the Khrazars, the Arsiyah (Moslims), the Rus and the soldiers of the usurper Buljan, all variously hunting the heroes, or fighting each other, or changing sides, I got confused about who was who and what on earth was happening. I also had to re-read some of Chabon’s very long sentences to catch their meaning – though I did wonder whether reading the book on a Kindle contributed to this. I think Chabon is deliberately writing in a somewhat ponderous style, in homage to the writers of earlier adventure stories like Alexander Dumas. And the long sentences are often quietly funny, as in ‘The African patted the horse’s neck and spoke to it in a velvet language, and Hanukkah caught sight of the broad ax slung across the giant’s back and began to regret his decision to call attention to himself, because kindness to horses was often accompanied in soldiers by an inclination, when it came to men, to brutality.’ The story was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, which accounts for the disconcertingly discrete nature of each chapter.

Writing swashbuckling adventure stories in deliberately stilted prose isn’t usual territory for Chabon. But a closer look reveals the presence of many of his characteristics. His interest in a historical Jewish state matches his creation of an imaginary one in the Sitka Federal District of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. His subtle humour suffuses this story, as it does in his other books. Who can’t enjoy such wry observations as ‘Mercy was a failing, a state of error, and in the case of children, a terrible waste of time.’ Or Zelikman’s ‘I don’t save lives … I just prolong their futility.’

Having got this far with my review, I find I’ve talked myself round. I do like the book, and suggest it is very worth reading. It’s just a good idea to know something about the setting first. You can find out more about Khazania here, and Michael Chabon here.

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After reading Evie Wyld’s traumatic but powerful All the Birds Singing – see my previous post – I was looking for something a bit more relaxed. But having found it, am I sure I really prefer comfortable?

Goddard is a well-established writer of mystery stories, where an ordinary person finds himself (and yes, all his heroes are male, as far as I can remember) having to uncover some dark secret.  Most of his twenty or so books deal with the impact such secrets from the past have on the present – see for example my review of the book before this one, Fault Line (2012). This one (2013), however, is set fully in the past. And a sequel to it – The Corners of the Globe (2014) – has already been published, going on from where The Ways of the World leaves off.

It is 1919. James Maxted, recently a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, wants to start a flying school. But his plans are interrupted by the death of his father, Sir Henry Maxted. Sir Henry was a retired diplomat recalled to service at the Paris Peace Conference. According to the French police, he died in an accident. James goes to Paris to bring his father’s body home, but soon finds there are enough ‘oddities and inconsistencies’ to throw doubt on the official version of events. He feels he has to investigate further. And one thing leads to another. What is the meaning of a mysterious list Sir Henry has left with a beautiful young widow? Why does the British Secret Service have an interest? Who else in the diplomatic community may hold a clue to Sir Henry’s death? You get the picture.

One of the things that interests me about ordinary person mysteries is the motivation of the main character to undertake the always dangerous task of uncovering the truth. Is it credible? Here, Maxted wants to find out why his father died; he feels driven by a sense of family loyalty. I don’t find this totally convincing in the sense that Maxted is rather braver than the average ordinary person. Goddard accounts for this in terms of his war experience: flying small planes over a battle field was not for the faint-hearted. He has been ‘forged by the fire, not consumed.’ When someone suggests he should be afraid, his response is: ‘I seem to have lost the knack’. But I think I’d be more convinced if Maxted wasn’t a bit of a cardboard cut-out – steadfast, loyal and resolute – in striking contrast to his stuffy older brother who just wants to avoid scandal. This is Boys Own stuff. Goddard actually describes Maxted’s actions at one point without apparent irony as ‘derring-do’, a phrase I thought was only ever used facetiously. Goddard hasn’t drawn any of the characters with any depth, which is disappointing. They are there just to make the story work.

And does it? Narrative is one of Goddard’s mains strengths, and he has crafted a clever enough plot. It moves along quickly, the short chapters adding to the pace. As with other amateurs, Maxted’s main way of operating is to ‘keep pushing’ and to see ‘who’s pushing back’. There is treachery and betrayal – common Goddard themes – and Maxted isn’t always right in his assumptions. There is a degree of happenstance and luck. But Goddard has also used the idea that ‘the things we think are unimportant are often the things that catch us out.’ In one case, what would otherwise be a gaping hole in the plot is covered by the explanation being deferred till next time. There are also some very loose ends, presumably deliberately left so that they can be taken up again in the next book. Indeed it may well be that some of what looks a bit like padding – Maxted’s expertise in flying, for example, or his period as a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down – will become relevant in the next book, to which this one is clearly a prelude.

It may also be that the relevance of the Peace Conference comes into sharper focus in the next book. It’s clearly an interesting time, and not one I’ve read about elsewhere. But apart from being an occasion bringing together a number of diplomats, and a matter for concern about the security of the various delegations, the Conference, and what it is trying to achieve, doesn’t play much of a part. Nor has Goddard put much work into the social setting of post-World War I England and France. Maxted’s off-sider, Sam Twentyman, his sergeant and former mechanic, finds it hard not to call his former officer ‘sir’; class is still alive and well, but is glossed over. Paris is cold and bleak, and there are demobilised soldiers begging on the streets, but there is no real sense of post war trauma.

This is perhaps disappointing, because as I noted in the earlier post on Goddard, he set out with higher standards than he seems to be achieving here. He says ‘I was inspired to take up writing by a growing dissatisfaction with much contemporary literature in which I detect a growing rift between technique and meaning. By wedding richness of language and intricacy of plot to narrative drive and dense imagery, I seek to heal that rift’. Well, there’s intricacy of plot and narrative drive, but the richness of language – and of characterisation – seem to have got lost along the way. Some of his earlier novels were better. It seems I need a book that is a bit more of a challenge for real satisfaction.

You can find more about Robert Goddard – and the next book – here.

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One of the great things about being in a book club – besides the interesting discussions and wonderful food provided by my generous book-club friends – is that I get to read books that I probably wouldn’t otherwise come across. The downside is that what we read comes from a list of books held in multiple copies generated from a local library – and taking pot luck doesn’t always result in a satisfying book. After becoming Richard and Judy’s top Summer Read in 2006, this one went on to sell 1 million copies in Britain alone, and the author won the Galaxy (now Specsavers) British Book Award for the New Writer of the Year in 2007, so it seemed a good bet. Not so. I don’t know who Richard and Judy are, but apparently the award is more about sales impact than quality – and it shows.

The story begins in the present day with Alexis, who is visiting Plaka, the village on Crete where her ancestors once lived. Her mother, Sophia, has always been reticent about her family history, but now that Alexis is holidaying in Crete, she has agreed to put her in touch with an old friend who can tell her about the family. The friend, Fotini, agrees, and most of the rest of the book is about what happened to the family between 1939 and 1958. Alexis and Sophia return briefly at the end.

The story that she hears is partly a history of the island of Spinalonga – Greece’s former leper colony – which is located just off Plaka. It is partly a story of the German occupation of Crete during World War II, and partly a family saga of romance and tragedy. Of these, the history of the leper colony is by far the most interesting and even moving, perhaps because the least known. The war history is perfunctory; if you really want to know about the kidnapping of General Kreipe by British special forces, read Ill Met by Moonlight, the account written by one of the participants, W (Billy) Stanley Moss, or better still, see the classic film starring Dirk Bogarde. The family saga unfortunately doesn’t rise above a Mills and Boon romance.

One of the problems with the book is that despite the author saying at the beginning: ‘It was here that Fotini began to relate Sophia’s story’, and near the end: ‘As Fotini reached this point in the story’, Fotini doesn’t actually tell the story. Instead, it is written as a third person history of the family, and contains information that Fotini, a by-stander, could not possible have known. This makes the whole device of Alexis’s visit pointless. Hislop might just as well have told the story, without a modern reference, or alternatively, told it in Fotini’s voice. I don’t think she can have it both ways.

The second, and even greater problem for me, is that Hislop just doesn’t write very well. Some of the description is OK, but her weakness as a writer shows in the excessive use of adjectives, as for example: ’Dressed in the unfamiliar feel of crisp, ironed cotton, she wandered down the dark back stairway and found herself in the restaurant kitchen, drawn there by the powerful aroma of strong, freshly brewed coffee.’ And if she ‘found herself’ in the kitchen, she wasn’t ‘drawn there’. The adjectives are often banal; hair is ‘lustrous’ and roast meat ‘succulent’. Elsewhere, ‘the green fields were verdant’ – no doubt they were, since verdant means green. And ‘he was being pressurised by his parents to find a wife’ – I’m perhaps being picky here, but what’s wrong with ‘pressured’? This is disappointing from someone who read English at Oxford and worked in publishing and as a journalist.

Furthermore, Hislop has not succeeded in giving any depth to her characters. Circumstances ensure that the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, and some of the characters behave badly. But no one has any shades of grey, and each is absolutely predictable in their actions and emotions. The ‘good’ characters are just too noble. I know you can’t expect writers to come up with entirely new angles on romance, but Jane Austen did the one found here first, and better, with Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. I’m simply not convinced.

One of the comments on the back of the book praises it for showing that ’love and life continue in even the most extraordinary of circumstances’ and this is perhaps the book’s saving grace. The information Hislop gives about the leper colony on Spinalonga and the disease itself is interesting and important, given the strong prejudice against lepers that has existed for centuries. That people managed to live any sort of normal existence in the colony – and she seems to have done her research on this – is indeed a testament to the human spirit.

Obviously other people don’t agree with my less than flattering estimate of this book; here’s the review that generated the blurb on the front: ‘a beach book with heart’. Hislop has written two further books, one of which, The Return (2008) is set in Granada during the Spanish Civil War. Given the Spanish emphasis of my current reading, I should try it – but somehow I don’t think I will. You can read more about Hislop here.

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It’s probably evident only to me that lately I’ve had a bit of an obsession with books about aspects of Spain. Recent posts include Robert Wilson’s crime fiction series set in Spain, with The Hidden Assassins and The Blind Man of Seville; then there was Moorish Spain, an historical account by Richard Fletcher and The Alhambra, by Washington Irving, a nineteenth century mixture of reportage and legend. OK, but what has this got to do with George Eliot? Well, Deronda is a name that would once have been de Ronda; though he doesn’t know it, Daniel’s family were Jews living in the Spanish town of Ronda before being driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. I should in all consistency write a post on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is set in the Spanish town of Segovia, and recounts events that actually took place in Ronda. But that’s for another day.

Daniel Deronda (1876) was George Eliot’s last novel. For the critic F.R. Leavis, it confirmed her greatness as a novelist. He initially suggested that the two story threads that make it up could best be seen as two separate books, one chronicling the fate of Gwendolen Harleth, the other dealing with Daniel Deronda. But he later concluded that what bound their stories together was more important than the seemingly disparate elements. In this I agree with him.

The book begins with Gwendolen, a spoilt young woman who wants to be independent – but not from any feminist desire for self-improvement or doing good to others: ‘She meant to do what was pleasant to herself in a striking manner; or rather, whatever she could do so as to strike others with admiration and get in that reflected way a more ardent sense of living’. She is a main character, but is she a heroine? Certainly she is no Emma; Austen Jane said that Emma was ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’, yet everyone does so. This is not the case for Gwendolen. Yet the power of Eliot’s writing is to show Gwendolen as selfish and conceited, but at the same time to show that she has other, better feelings. You can’t completely dislike her.

Gwendolen is in the same position as other nineteenth century females in life and literature in that her life chances are drastically limited; there are few roles open beyond wife and mother. Her story in some ways echoes the form of the ‘romance’ of which Jane Austen was such a mistress; a man and a woman find they love each but obstacles arise and they must struggle to overcome them. (There are some interesting comparisons between Austen’s and Eliot’s preoccupations; see for example two quotations: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.’ And ‘Some readers of this history will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach.’) But without telling you what actually does happen, I can say that this is not the case here; it is more a story about redemption than successful romance. This is probably one of the reasons a critic like Leavis approves the book; he thought literature should carry moral weight. But how Gwendolen comes to understand herself differently seems to me to show great psychological insight on Eliot’s part, and I certainly didn’t find any sense of there being a moral for morality’s sake.

Deronda is the protégé Sir Hugo Mallinger, a well-to-do English gentleman who has brought him up to be an English gentleman in his turn. Deronda himself, and most other people, think he is Sir Hugo’s unacknowledged illegitimate son. This belief has an unsettling effect on him; what are the implications of it for his place in English society, and as we would say these days, for his sense of identity? It seems at first that Deronda’s story is secondary to that of Gwendolen, and it’s true that Eliot could have written a whole novel about her fate, and Deronda’s part in it. But a kind act on his part leads the narrative into another path altogether where Deronda seeks to find out about his mother. In doing so, he finds he has quite a different heritage from the one he was brought up with. I guess I gave this away be saying that his family name was originally de Ronda, but knowing that (which may in any case have been be self-evident to some) doesn’t spoil the story of what he finds out. Unlike Gwendolen, however, Daniel is rather too much a paragon of virtue. Eliot occasionally gently mocks him, and we see his doubts and fears. But he is unvaryingly generous and thoughtful. In my view, being consistently nice makes him a foil for Gwendolen, rather than deserving the title role; his circumstances change, but he does not develop as she does.

These two stories are linked in many ways into an intricate pattern. Thinking about it in a purely objective way, there are too many coincidences, too many parallels. But reading the book, I really enjoyed these. There is so much insight, so much interest in Eliot’s narrative that somehow the twists of fate seem acceptable in ways they might not in the hands of a lesser writer.

I haven’t left much space to comment on Eliot’s writing. Yes, there were a few times when the long sentences seem over-burdened with qualifying clauses and the nineteenth century prose style makes reading seem like wading through treacle. Eliot writes with the ‘god perspective’ that allows her to know all, and reveal all about her characters, and to moralise, if you like, in ways that are quite unfashionable among modern writers. It took me a little while to get used to it, but Eliot in general writes with such a light ironic touch that reading her quickly becomes a pleasure.  I’ll give just one tiny example: ’Lord Slogan [was] an unexceptionable Irish peer, whose estate wanted nothing but drainage and population.’

The link with Spain turned out to be tenuous – but I’m really glad it prompted me to read the novel. You can find out more about George Eliot here, and about the book here. There’s rather more to it than I’ve indicated in this post. F.R. Leavis wrote the introduction to the edition I read; I found his prose far more opaque than George Eliot’s. A 2002 TV series based on the book sounds interesting.

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It’s purely by chance that I’m reviewing yet another book about magic (see The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago). I don’t have a particular interest in magic – far from it. In fact I feel rather like the reviewer of The Night Circus (2011) in the Guardian who, being ‘resistant to historical fiction … hostile to whimsy, and beyond impatient with the fantastical’, might have been expected to hate it, only to find it enchanting. Because I enjoyed it too.

Set in the 1880s through to the early twentieth century, The Night Circus is about the competition between two magicians to establish which of their magical techniques is superior. Their rivalry is of long standing, and takes the form of periodic ‘challenges’ in which their students compete. This time one of the magicians, Henry Bowen (aka Prospero the Enchanter), pits his young daughter Celia against Marco, an orphan chosen and trained by the other magician, known only as Alexander, or Mr A. H-. Celia and Marco know there is a game, but do not initially know that they are competitors, or how the outcome will be decided. The venue for the game is to be a production organised by a wealthy theatrical entrepreneur, Chandresh Lefèvre, and that production is the Night Circus – sometimes known as Le Cirque des Rêves.

The circus simply appears in various far-flung locations. It is open from dusk to dawn. It contains some apparently conventional circus acts, such as a contortionist, trapeze artists (who work without a net) and a fortune teller, but there aren’t any clowns and very few performing animals. Instead, there things like a hall of mirrors, an ice garden, a wishing tree and a cloud maze. Patrons have a ‘magical’ experience, in the sense of amazing or wondrous, but don’t understand the foundation of the circus as magical in the paranormal sense. ‘People see what they wish to see. And in most cases what they are told they see.’  For the two competitors, it is an opportunity to showcase their magical skills. This is ‘actual magic disguised as stage illusion.’ But is there a price to be paid for mixing magic and reality? Who will pay it?

The basic story of the magical challenge is augmented by the stories of other characters who are either creators of some of the non-magical aspects of the circus, such as the clock maker, Friedrick Thiessen, performers like Isobel the fortune teller, and lovers of the circus like Bailey, a young American drawn into its ambit. All have a part to play, but the use of magic may or may not work out well for them. Magic has ramifications. As Celia notes, the game is about ‘how we deal with the repercussions of magic when placed is a world that does not believe in such things.’

The story, which is told in the present tense, jumps backwards and forwards in time, though only over a limited period. I’m not sure why Morgenstern has chosen to do this; possibly to add to the sense that the circus lies outside normal time. She is perhaps reinforcing through narrative form the idea that though magic can’t reverse time, it can make it be experienced differently. There are also short sections throughout that describe the experience of the circus, as if addressing a member of audience, as in ‘You watch the performance from this precarious vantage point, directly below the performers.’ This is intended to give the reader a sense of involvement, but also has a structural purpose made clear at the end.

Some reviewers (here’s one, anyway) have found the story slight and overly sentimental, and the characters, though suitable to their part in the story, not particularly memorable. I found it helped to think of it as a romance, with obstacles to be overcome, and somewhat set parts for the main characters. Certainly it is not a drama asking profound questions. So what did I like about it? I liked the circus. It is a beautifully imagined alternative reality, there for the reader to explore in a very visual way. And the book does raise interesting considerations about the relation between competition and collaboration, collusion and manipulation, fate and freedom. In the words of the Guardian reviewer who liked it (see above), The Night Circus ‘poses questions about the essential connection between fantasy and reality, and the human need for the former for the sustenance of the latter.’ It’s not at all like any other book about magic I’ve ever read.

This is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel. She’s also, perhaps not surprisingly, a visual artist. You can read more about her here. A film of the book is said to be ‘under development’.

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