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Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

The Baroque Cycle (2003-4) is a series of eight books, published for convenience in three volumes, entitled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. In all, there’s around 2,500 pages – not an enterprise for the fainthearted. But we had a long spell of very hot weather in Adelaide, so I had plenty of time to read.

Stephenson has taken a number of characters and themes appearing in his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon and projected them back, as it were, into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. So we have the ancestors of the modern characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a number of Shaftoes, some Comstocks, some von Hacklhebers and Enoch Root – though Stephenson says he is the same Enoch Root who appears in the twentieth century story. There are also the imagined interactions with real people, as in Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Benjamin Franklin, to say nothing of Louis XIV, William of Orange and Caroline of Hanover. The preoccupations of many of these characters are similar to those of their twentieth century physical and intellectual descendants – ie philosophy, mathematics, code breaking, technology, war and weaponry and the functioning of trade and money. I really liked this echo effect, and would suggest reading Cryptonomicon before venturing further.

Stephenson describes the Cycle as having a science fiction mindset. I think what he means is that he has created an alternative world, rather than evoking the real historical one. But it is also an historical epic, full of ‘swordplay, swashbuckling and derring-do’. It takes place between 1664 and 1714, and is set at some point in the tale in almost every part of the then known world. This was a time of seething intellectual, religious, political and economic change across Europe, a ‘quicksilver world’, where ‘power came of thrift and cleverness and industry, not of birthright, and certainly not of Divine Right’. At least this is what the author seeks to illustrate through the activities of his characters. I don’t really know how historically correct it is, and obviously Stephenson can’t ignore history. Indeed, there is a huge amount of information on show about the details of all aspects of life– too much for some reviewers, who found it could be boring, as I occasionally did. And there are a number of historical processes, especially ones associated with technology, that hold the whole complex story together. But as his comment about science fiction shows, Stephenson isn’t really interested in imaginative historical reconstruction; he is at his best telling an exciting story, and for the most part, this is what he does. There are plagues, fires, battles, espionage, sea voyages, pirates, slavery, even the Spanish Inquisition and sundry other adventures, as well as love, loyalty, friendship, cruelty and treachery.

I like the way Stephenson writes. He hasn’t tried for a complete period effect in his alternate world; there are a number of quotes from writers of the time like Bunyan, Hobbs and Defoe to remind us of the real thing. But there are many sentence constructions and some word usages which give an historical feel to the writing, such as ‘oeconomy’, or ‘lanthorn’, ‘similitude’, or my favourite, ‘phant’sy’ or ‘phant’sied’, covering any of thought, considered, fancied or believed. Along-side this is a modern sensibility expressed in modern jargon, like ‘the commodities market’, ‘it looked like a win’, or the list of ‘weaponized farm implements’, ‘viz. war-sickles, combat-flails, assault-shovels and tactical-adzes’. ‘If it is funny, or it works’, Stephenson says, he is happy to put it in. But it’s also integral to his ‘science fiction’ mindset.

Indeed Stephenson is a very ‘take it or leave it’ sort of writer. He makes no concessions; you can almost see him thinking ‘what the hell, I like this so I’ll put it in.’ This makes his books very long, and to a degree, self-indulgent. Sometimes, indeed, the action is completely over the top. I think this tendency is more apparent in the Cycle than in the other of his books I’ve read. It also perhaps arises from the episodic nature of the story; each new section has to be filled out in detail with a different setting, different circumstances and different adventures, whatever the common themes (though this is less true in the third volume). The division into books and volumes is also problematic, in that if you want to know what happens, you need to read it all. The volumes aren’t stand-alone – though I note that all of them have individually won prizes, so perhaps others wouldn’t agree with me about that. Each book, and therefore each volume (except the last one) ends on a cliff hanger note for some character, rather like a TV show that is making sure you watch the next series. I did find I overdosed a bit, and had to take some breaks from reading for a while, particularly in the third volume, which seems overburdened with detail and hype. But I was always pleased to go back to it.

Because I so much like the way Stephenson writes, I’m always going to take pleasure in his books. But if you aren’t already a fan, I wouldn’t start with these three. You can read my posts on Cryptonomicon (1999) here, Anathem (2008) here and Reamde (2011) here.

You can read more about Neal Stephenson, including interviews about the books, on his web-site.

 

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When it got so hot in Adelaide recently, the only thing to do was to sit quietly and read a book. So I chose to re-read a former favourite, Gaudy Night (1936), and to see how it has stood the test of time.

Dorothy Sayers is one of the classic writers of Golden Age crime fiction, which was dominated by the sort of clever puzzle mysteries she is so good at. In the early books, her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey reads like a bit of a parody of the upper class Englishman, complete with monocle and a repertoire of silly slang.  But in the later books, particularly those which also feature Harriet Vane, herself a writer of detective stories, he shows that under his flippant nonchalance he has uncertainties and sensitivities.  Indeed the Vane/Wimsey stories could also be thought of as love stories with a bit of detection thrown in. Gaudy Night is the third of the four Vane/Wimsey stories. If you are new to them, it’s worth starting with the first one, Strong Poison (1930) because it sets up the relationship between Vane and Wimsey – with all its problems.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet goes to the student reunion – traditionally known as a Gaudy Night – of her Oxford College, Shrewsbury (imaginary, but based on Sayers’s own women’s college, Somerville). There she is exposed to some unpleasant anonymous messages. She is distressed because one of the messages might apply to her own circumstances. But she thinks no more of it until sometime later when the Dean of the College asks her to come and investigate a spate of such messages, and other malicious damage which has occurred around the college. Harriet unwillingly agrees. The perpetrator becomes bolder, and the incidents more dangerous. It is clear that whoever is doing this must come from within the College. Could she be a student? A member of the domestic staff? Surely she couldn’t be one of the members of the Senior Common Room? And how difficult will it be for Harriet to translate her writing about mysterious crimes into solving one?

A second strand in the story is her relationship with Wimsey. He fell in love with her in Strong Poison, and saved her life when she was charged with murder. Harriet feels beholden to him, ‘the creature of his making and the mirror of his own magnanimity’; needing to be grateful to him ‘is simply damnable’. ‘The fact is,’ she thinks, ‘I have got a bad inferiority complex … I could have liked him so much if I could have met him on an equal footing …’ So here we have the classic elements of romance: a relationship that can only progress to mutual love once certain problems are overcome. It didn’t happen in the previous book (Have His Carcass, 1932); will it happen in this one? And where might Wimsey fit into Harriet’s efforts at detection?

But what really sets this book apart is what has been described as Sayers’s ‘love affair with Oxford’. Most of the action is set there, and the buildings, the landscape, the social customs and ambiance of 1930s Oxford life are affectionately conveyed – she clearly loves the place. Even more important is her depiction of the academic life that is lived there by the female dons; its values are central to the story.

How does this stand up to a modern reading? I have a somewhat mixed reaction. The puzzle Vane and Wimsey have to solve is cleverly established, especially as the clues to the solution, which are only easy to see in retrospect, are really as much about states of mind as about the physical evidence. While the denouement is quite powerful, this is not an action packed thriller, and it may move too slowly – and with a bit too much Oxford – for some readers. I am sentimental enough to enjoy the love story. Sayers writes well, and Vane and Wimsey are both well drawn and interesting characters. She writes intelligently about academic life, though her conclusions would now probably be considered simplistic. Sayers is clearly a feminist – though of course she does not use that word – and is passionate in her defence of the need for equality in education, and about the difficulty of the choice that had to be made then between marriage and paid work.

However there remains the question of whether her loving description of the life of a tiny elite – with an aristocratic detective to boot – can still evoke sympathy and interest. The characters are not unaware of the issues of class and privilege, but that doesn’t alter the reality of it in the story. Some of the female dons protest against any automatic assumption that the outrages are being committed by one of the servants. But servants they remain. Wimsey is aware that the aristocracy is becoming a back number: ‘Our kind of show is dead and done for,’ he says. ‘What the hell good does it do anybody these days?’ But he’s still rich and privileged. This could reasonably be seen as Sayers telling it like it is; readers of today may or may not find it interesting. Re-reading it, I found her veneration of Oxford and all its traditions a little difficult to appreciate unreservedly, even as an escape from the heat. But don’t let me put you off. Like I said, the love story is nice.

You can read more about Dorothy Sayers here. She says that ‘The novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland’ but I don’t believe her. Harriet Vane shares too many of her experiences with Dorothy Sayers for it all to be make believe.

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Published in 2010, this is Elizabeth Speller’s first novel. I came across her work when I read a review of her second book, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012), which features the same main character, so I thought I should read the first one first. I’m not sure that was a good idea. On one hand, it certainly establishes the background and circumstances of the main character. On the other, it reads a bit like a first novel – promising, but flawed.

It is 1921. Captain Laurence Bartram has survived the cataclysm of the World War, but is now drifting and purposeless. His wife died in childbirth during the war, and his baby son soon after; now his life before 1914 is ‘a closed world he could never reach back and touch.’ He has been commissioned to write a book about London churches, but is making slow progress. Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of his school friend, John Emmett. He too survived service in the war, but has recently committed suicide. Mary wants Laurence to help her understand why. Though Laurence feels he is unlikely to be much help, he remembers liking Mary, and agrees to try. But what if the truth will be of no comfort to her?

This story has the form of a classic mystery, where an ordinary person undertakes some sort of quest to uncover a secret. Laurence makes a good ‘ordinary person’: he is a kind and decent man, troubled by his own memories of what he has lived through. One thing he finds out leads him to another, until the whole picture – or almost the whole picture – becomes clear. Along the way he gets help, mainly in the form of information. Quite a lot of this comes from another school friend, Charles, who has a wide range of friends and relations who together seem to know almost the entire surviving officer class from the war. I’m sure Speller is right in saying that at least in the early years of the war, getting a commission was a class thing; a question of going to the right school and having the right background. Many of them would be likely to have friends and relations in common.  Nevertheless, my problem with Charles is his role in the structure of the plot; his body of knowledge is just too convenient. There are also some fairly wild coincidences: sentences like ‘Even as he absorbed the extraordinary coincidence unfolding in front of him’ don’t really make up for the hole in the plot that necessitates them. The reader will certainly work out what is happening quicker than Laurence does. And the resolution takes a form that I think is a bit amateur.  Overall, there is too much telling and not enough showing. But this is a fault of a first time novelist, and there are other things to like about the book.

Speller has been praised for her scrupulous presentation of the early 1920s, and in general the context she provides is interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking. (There is one anachronism though – see if you can pick it.) However I found Laurence’s middle class perspective a bit limiting at times, as for example when he assumes the person he is looking for must have been an officer: it takes him several chapters to figure out that he could have been an ordinary soldier. He then at least does reflect on the class-bound basis of the army. But Charles especially reminds me of characters in the snobbish stories of the 1920s mystery writer Dornford Yates – that is, he has no character outside what is almost a parody of the English gentleman.

The book’s main strength, for me, is the issue of military discipline that is at the heart of the story. Speller has researched the area closely – she gives some references in an afterword – and it is well to be reminded what powers the British Army wielded over soldiers at that time, particularly as the centenary of the beginning of World War I approaches, with all its opportunities to romanticise the terrible sacrifice. Laurence is able to regain his emotional life by admitting to himself that during his service, he was terrified much of the time by the thought of dying. ‘We weren’t supposed to be frightened, not so that it showed,’ says one character. ‘Now when you look back, you can see that fear was the rational response to much of it’. And Speller suggests that what soldiers had to endure was essentially unendurable. This is hardly new, but highlighting the psychological as well as the physical damage caused by the war gives depth to her story.

Overall, at the better end of holiday reading. You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here. She has just published a third book, though not featuring Laurence Bartram – there’s only so many adventures the ‘ordinary man’ can have before he makes a profession of it. The new one deals directly with the Great War. It seems like there might be a bit of an industry this year round the centenary of its outbreak. And certainly lots of controversy.

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January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated annually on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seems highly fitting that I finished reading The Street Sweeper (2011) on that day, for much of it concerns events at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Questions about the liberation of Dachau are also important in the plot. The book took me some time to read; I had to put it down and leave it several times because I simply couldn’t go on. Is it the power of the events, or the power of the author in telling them that makes such an impression? The events would speak for themselves whatever the medium; Perlman’s achievement is to make you want to read on.

The book tells a number of stories that belong both to Perlman’s characters, and to the history of the twentieth century. The book is set in New York in the present, but the action often reverts to the past. The two main characters in this vast sweep are Lamont Williams, a young African American man just out of gaol after serving six years for a crime he didn’t commit, and Adam Zignelik, a historian at Columbia University whose personal and professional life is falling to bits. Although unknown to each other, a web of connections links them, made up of people they come into contact with, and things they learn from and about them. The story is much too complicated even to outline here, but it reaches back to the experience of African American soldiers in World War II, to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to unionism in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, to school desegregation and the American Civil Rights movement. How do these fit together? Adam says ‘you never know the connections between things, people, places, ideas. But there are connections.’ This is the premise the story based on, and I am in awe of the amazing feat of story-telling that Perlman has produced to tie it all together. Almost everything and everybody in the story relates to, or makes reference to, something or someone else. This could be seen as artificial, but I didn’t find it so. One tiny example suffices to illustrate this sort of referencing: the daughter of Adam’s boss at Columbia (whose father was a friend of his father) is speaking to her mother, (who is Lamont’s cousin, though she hasn’t seen him for many years) about a book she is supposed to be reading for school. ‘It sucks … It’s boring and … unrealistic.’ What is the book? Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the great American realist classic set in the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

History, then, is central to the story. Early in the book, Adam asks his students: ‘What is History’? ‘With the facts you know are solid underneath you,’ he says, ‘build a bridge to the unknown. Is this true, likely to be true, unlikely to be true or is there not enough known to you to say?’ Though this book is fiction, a lot of it is based on what is true, and a lot more on what is likely to be true. A number of the characters are either real people or based on real people; the book is dedicated to eight women, four Jewish, four African American, ‘who all died from different manifestation of the same disease’ – racism.

But being fiction, Perlman invokes another category: the imaginative recreation of what might have happened. What the imagined historian Adam discovers could have been true; it is fiction based on the spirit of what actually happened rather than any of his more precise historical categories. In the story, the imagined ex-prisoner Lamont Williams is the source of an account of real events he has learned about from a Jewish ex-inmate of Auschwitz; that never happened, and the historical account he reports is known from other sources. But Lamont is also true to the spirit of what happened; he is ‘desperate for people to remember other people.’ In this, he is unconsciously echoing the plea of the Jews of Auschwitz-Birkenau to ‘tell everybody what happened here’, a plea at the heart of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and of this book.

You can see from the sort of history being covered here, which, by the way is beautifully researched, that much of the book is very grim. The personal relationships of most of the characters are not happy either. So why did I keep going? It was partly the compelling interest of both the story and the characters, and the urge to know what would happen next. I think I also felt some kind of a duty to the victims of this history. Who could refuse to hear when they cry ‘tell everybody what happened here’? I also took heart from the book’s epigram from Ana Akhmatova: ‘Mountains bow down to this grief … But hope keeps singing from afar’.

Elliot Perlman is the son of second-generation Jewish Australians, and he grew up in Melbourne. You can read more about him here. This is his third novel, and he has a book of short stories. His second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2004. It was beaten by The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – no disgrace there. But for a novelist that one French literary magazine has called ‘one of the 50 most important writers in the world’, he seems strangely little known in Australia.

The history in this book is fascinating, if horrifying. You can read more about the Little Rock Nine here, the Packinghouse Workers Organising Committee here, the history of wire recorders here and the Sonderkommando revolt here. It is interesting that the publicity around the publication of the book also contributed to finding evidence relevant to one of the historical disputes that is important in the story; for the dispute, see here, and for Perlman’s disclosure of the new evidence on it in 2012, see here.  Will it resolve the dispute? ‘One wonders,’ he writes, ‘whether there are still some people for whom the eyewitness testimonies of African-Americans and of Polish Jews are not enough.’

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This time of the year everyone seems to be writing about ‘the best of 2013’, so I thought I’d join in. Here are my five favourite books from this year. They weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. The top three were easy, but numbers four and five were difficult choices and I could easily have made different ones. Why do I think they are ‘the best’? Putting them together like this makes me realise that in each case it is the writing style that appeals to me. What the author is saying is also important; each of these books seems to me to have an important message. But the message becomes most appealing when it is delivered beautifully, as is the case in all of these. I’ve linked to my original reviews for more information about them.

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl (2012) is a very clever mystery story about the disappearance of a young woman from her home in North Carthage, Missouri. Has she been kidnapped? Or murdered? What is her husband Nick’s role in this? Can either of them be trusted as narrators? The ingenious plot is set against the background of post GFC America; Nick and Amy’s moral landscape is as bleak as the physical setting. The combination of social commentary and plot twists is brilliantly done.

4. Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This couldn’t be more different from number 5. Set in 1956, Home (2008) is a companion to Robinson’s Gilead (2004), but I couldn’t exclude it for that reason, though I think it’s better to read Gilead first, as both books cover some of the same ground. Jack Boughton is the disreputable son of the Presbyterian minister of the small town of Gilead. The Reverend Broughton is old and ill. He loves Jack, but despairs of his wild ways. Why has Jack chosen to come home now, after so many years away?  This is a book where the story is simple. It is the relationships that matter – but also the reflections on American history and society that Robinson quietly alludes to. I know of no other writer who can make silences mean so much.

3. Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

It’s true I didn’t warm to this book as easily as I did to Wolf Hall (2009), the first in the trilogy. I think this was because I found the striving Cromwell of the first book more attractive than the successful courtier of this one. But I still very much enjoyed it, and nobody can deny how well Mantel writes. I like her use of the present tense and her sharp, modern dialogue. It’s true that we all know more or less what is going to happen, but Cromwell doesn’t, which adds hugely to the tension. Mantel doesn’t pretend she is writing history; it’s how Cromwell might have seen it – an imaginative recreation. Maybe it’s best to read Wolf Hall first, though.

2. The Heart Broke In, by James Meek

This is a wonderfully complex story that Meek nevertheless manages to hold together in a very satisfying way. Set mostly in present day England, with brief excursions to Africa, it is part social commentary, part exploration of morality, part thoughts on science, part love story and part family saga. And that description only scratches the surface. There is a rich cast of characters. And then there is the writing. Meek has a great ear for the vernacular, a wry vocabulary to describe modern life, and the capacity to write movingly about love, betrayal and death. A great combination.

1. Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

And the winner is Flight Behaviour (2012). Maybe I’m biased in my choice, because Flight Behaviour is about the effects of climate change, an issue in which I am passionately interested. The migration of Monarch butterflies has been disrupted by the destruction of their winter habitat, and they have settled instead in a valley in the Appalachians. But they are constantly as risk from the weather. Kingsolver doesn’t lecture about the effects of climate change; she shows them. But even if readers only have a mild interest in this subject, I think they’d have to agree that it’s a beautifully written book. The story is complex and satisfying. Kingsolver shows a rare humanity in presenting her characters as fully rounded and truly human. Some of this comes from her ability to write convincing dialogue. But her descriptions of people, family, nature, and life in general in rural Bible belt America are superb.

Only one of these books – Bring Up The Bodies – won any of the big literary prizes, so critical opinion isn’t on my side. But I don’t care. These are the books that moved me most this year, and I hope that other readers will enjoy – or have already enjoyed – them too. Happy reading.

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This book won the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction, but rarely has that award resulted in so much disagreement about the merits of the recipient. A.N. Wilson said he was ‘awestruck with admiration for the quality of its writing, its narrative pace and its imaginative depth’, whereas a reviewer in The New York Times thought it had ‘the head of a young adult novel, the body of the “Iliad” and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland’.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad – otherwise known as The Song of Ilian, another name for Troy. The story is narrated by Patroclus, who becomes the beloved companion of Achilles and accompanies him to the war in Troy. The Iliad starts during the last years of the Trojan War. But Patroclus and Achilles don’t even reach Troy until over half way through this book. The first part is taken up with Patroclus’s own story: his childhood, his meeting with Achilles, their growing friendship, their education by the centaur Chiron and the attempt by Achilles’s mother, the sea nymph Thetis, to keep Achilles from the war with Troy by disguising him as a woman. Miller has elaborated on existing legend; she hasn’t actually made stuff up. But she has put the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles at the centre of the story. Its precise nature is never explained in the Iliad; here is clear that they become lovers. Indeed Miller refers to the book as a love story.

The question of foreknowledge operates at two levels in the book. On one hand, the characters have some knowledge of the future by means of prophecy, and information given by the gods. The world Patroclus describes is one where the actions of gods are an accepted part of life, as is the need to propitiate them. Only Thetis – an immortal, if not actually a god – actually plays much part in the story, though Apollo also appears at a crucial point. But the gods and their whims are a constant presence. ‘There is no law that gods must be fair’, Chiron tells Achilles. Achilles is told that he will be the best fighter of his generation, and later that while Hector lives, Achilles cannot die. Achilles and Patroclus know that ‘the best of the Myrmidons’ – the followers who have accompanied Achilles to Troy – will die before Achilles does. Such riddles add tension to the story, and I found it easy to accept Patroclus’s world view. But how can human love stand against the will of the gods?

The second issue of foreknowledge is that of readers, most of whom will have at least some familiarity with the events of the Trojan War. (The best known story of the war – that of the wooden horse and the defeat of the Trojans – doesn’t come into either the Iliad, or this story.) Does this knowledge interfere with the tension of the book? I didn’t find it did; indeed knowing what was to happen only made the tension greater. The story actually extends beyond what happens in the Iliad, and Miller has taken a few liberties with the ending. But it works well enough.

So what is there to cause all the controversy? Miller writes well, in a tone appropriate to her subject, so it can’t be that. There are a few places where her prose slips up – you can see a couple of them here. The story flows, and is easy to read. I guess it’s a question of whether or not you think she has sufficiently humanised her mythic characters. Through Patroclus, she tries to come to terms with the fact that Achilles is being trained, and training himself, to be an instrument of war, a killing machine. But making it a love story has made this hard to do. Achilles accepts that honour in battle is the highest cause – greased, of course, with the desire for plunder. ‘What is more heroic than to fight for the honour of the most beautiful woman in the world, against the mightiest city of the east?’ asks Odysseus. To remain within the spirit of Homer’s epic, Patroclus has to accept this too, and even in the face of all the killing, he offers unconditional love. He presents himself as somewhat passive – a natural follower. What is there interesting enough in him to inspire the sort of love that Achilles feels for him? I find their relationship a bit too bland – though not to the extent of comparing it with a Barbara Cartland romance!

Madeline Miller is a trained classicist who was teaching Greek and Latin to American high school students while writing this book. She certainly clarifies a story I’ve always found a bit confusing, and probably awakens an interest in classics like the Iliad. Some of the story as she tells it has real power. But even though it fleshes out aspects of the legend that aren’t clear, it doesn’t make an imaginative leap beyond it. A strength or a weakness? I’m still not sure.

You can read more about Madeline Miller and her work here

PS. I always thought that Achilles was invulnerable everywhere else but his heel, which had been gripped by Thetis when she dipped him into the river Styx to try and make him immortal – hence the phrase ‘Achilles heel’. But apparently this is a later accretion to the legend and not part of the Iliad, or this book.

PPS. If you like this book, you might also have a look at Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine (1956), set in 5th century Greece, in which there is another close male relationship – though I didn’t recognise it as sexual when I read it fifty years ago.  Miller is often compared to Renault.

 

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In what feels like a big coincidence, but probably isn’t, my book club has chosen to read The Secret Life of Bees (2001) just the session after we had read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The apparent coincidence is that both these books deal with religion, civil rights and racism in rural America. It isn’t really a coincidence, because these are central themes in America’s history, and it is natural that American literature should reflect this. But I find it interesting that two such different books should have all this in common.

The Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina in 1964 – the year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race (as well as religion and sex). Lily Owens, now fourteen, lives with her bitter and overbearing father, and the belief that at the age of four she was the accidental cause of her mother’s death. She is cared for by Rosaleen, her father’s black housekeeper. As soon as the Civil Rights law has been signed, Rosaleen tries to register to vote, with disastrous results. She and Lily find themselves on the run from the law, and are taken in by three sisters who keep bees.  Lily finds she has a lot to learn – and not just about bee keeping.

The story is narrated by Lily and is in part about her growing up. She is a consummate liar, but they are the lies of a clever child; she learns to make the more adult choice of reality. But the truth can be a burden: ‘I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t know which one was heavier.’ She can be both naive and wise – possibly a bit too wise for a fourteen year old with her background, though her love of reading – anathema to her father – may have helped her maturity. ‘I realized it for the first time in my life,’ she says, ‘there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.’ This is a nice idea, but is it a likely one for a fourteen year old? She is, much less surprisingly, unthinking in her racism, until she has learnt to see differently. The bee keeping sisters are black; one of them questions taking Lily in because she is white. ‘I hadn’t known this was possible –to reject people for being white. A hot wave passed through my body.’ But later she feels really good when she realises that her new black friends don’t think of her as being different. ‘Up until then I’d thought that white people and colored people getting along was the big aim, but after that I decided that everybody being colorless together was a better plan.’

Central to the story is a Black Madonna statue. It is actually a figurehead from a ship. The sisters and their friends know this, but nevertheless venerate the statue as if it were Mary, mother of Christ. They have created their own rituals around her and their religious observance owes something to Roman Catholic practices – though as Lily notes, nothing the Pope would recognise. The author had what she describes as a ‘vivid spiritual transformation at mid-life’, as a result of which she became interested in feminist theology, and so it’s not surprising that she gives Mary a special significance in the lives of these women. But I see the Mary story as being as much to do with the value of mothering, which is a theme in the book, as it is with religion. It’s not motherhood itself that matters – it’s mothering behaviour. The life of the bees also centres round the queen, or mother; a hive without a mother soon disintegrates. Kidd doesn’t go as far as saying that working with bees confers grace, but she comes close to it; honey seems almost a magical substance – which perhaps it is.

This book reminds me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), having some of the same themes such as coming of age and southern racism; even the tone of the writing is similar – which should be a recommendation. It contains humour and tragedy, warmth and wisdom. What is there not to like? And I did enjoy it. But, unlike Gilead – or To Kill a Mockingbird – it didn’t stretch my mind or even my imagination. It may be that the much denser writing that characterises Gilead derives from the fact that it is told by a seventy six year old, whereas the protagonist here is only fourteen, and can’t be expected to have mature insights. Or maybe it just isn’t as subtle. I can imagine it being someone’s comfort book, but it won’t be on my list; I didn’t find it special, as others obviously have.

You can read more about Sue Monk Kidd here. The book has been made into both a stage play and a film; it received a mixed reception, winning awards for ‘Favorite Movie Drama’ and ‘Favorite Independent Movie’ at the 35th People’s Choice Awards but being considered too maudlin and sticky-sweet by others. You can read more about it here.

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