Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

I thought I already knew about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), thanks to all those English and American writers who went there to fight and wrote about it later. Then there was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica which I remember studying at one time. But really I hardly knew anything. I certainly didn’t know quite how brutal it was.

Isabel Allende’s new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, gave me a lot more insight, I am happy to say. It is mostly the story of Victor Dalmau, a medic on the Republican (Communist) side, glad he doesn’t have to fire a gun. He learns so much in the harsh reality of battlefield surgery and makes a name for himself by restarting a young soldier’s heart who has been left for dead. He’d like to finish his training as a doctor, but as the war ends, it becomes a fight for survival, with Republicans fleeing across the border to France to avoid slaughter.

Among the refugees is Roser, a promising musician who lived with Victor’s family. Roser is carrying the child of Guillem, Victor’s brother. Guillem is most certainly dead and chance to start a new life in Chile forces Victor and Roser to marry. Chile needs musicians more than it needs doctors, but the two make a new life together, and the novel follows their hard work and difficulties, their successes and new friendships. Among these is Felipe del Solar, who introduces Victor to Salvador Allende who is eventually to become President of Chile. Felipe also introduces Victor to his beautiful sister.

Chile is kind to the Dalmau family, but waiting in the wings is another Fascist insurrection and it seems a bit like history repeating itself. Another round of mysterious disappearances, of killings and concentration camps. Isabel Allende weaves into the story of ordinary people some major events and at times the book read more like non-fiction than fiction. This worked well for me and saved me the trouble of constantly reaching for the Internet, as it filled in all the factual stuff you needed to know in an accessible way.

Among the real people who make an appearance is Pablo Neruda, Chile’s famous poet. It is Neruda who had described Chile as ‘a long petal of the sea and wine and snow … (with) a belt of black and white foam’. Neruda, as Chile’s consul in Paris, organises the ship that brings the Dalmaus to Chile and fittingly his poetry introduces each chapter, e.g.:

I have slept with you
the whole night long
while the dark earth turns
with the living and the dead
("Night on the Island" - The Captain's Verses)

Allende deals with some big themes in her book – displacement, nationhood, the effects of war, family issues and so on. But it is also a love story and the way she writes this is with much humanity, sensitivity and tenderness. You can’t help falling in love a little with the characters themselves – especially gentle, hard-working and reliable Victor and fiery, clever and determined Roser. Allende shows us what is both ordinary and special about each of them.

This is such a stunning book, handling some really terrible scenes from history with a lightness of touch but still making them real. I frequently felt a lump in my throat as I read. A five out of five star read from me.

Book Review: The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

The plot-line for The Lost Lights of St Kilda is fairly classic: boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl and she with him; circumstances tear them apart and years later, boy tries to find girl again and wonders if it’s too late. Nothing very original here, but what makes this novel so very interesting are the settings.

The story opens with Fred, a prisoner of war courtesy of the Germans, following his capture at St Valery. It’s 1940, and while many British servicemen were evacuated at Dunkirk, he’s stuck in a dark, dank prison cell with others from the 51st Highland Division, dreaming of home. Fred’s in his thirties, has lived all around the world with his work as a geologist, but what he can’t stop thinking about is the girl he left behind a dozen years before when he was researching the rock strata on St Kilda.

St Kilda is a wild and rugged island group off the coast of Scotland. Quite a way off the coast of Scotland. Lewis and Harris are part of the Outer Hebrides, and are hardly within cooee. St Kilda’s home to thousands of seabirds, particularly gannets and fulmars which earn the islanders their livelihood. It’s pretty much subsistence living – it has to be as there’s no regular postal service, no radio communication, so the locals rely on visiting fishing boats and such for mail and supplies.

There’s also a bit of tourism in the summer – visitors make day trips to buy St Kilda handcrafts and to photograph ‘Britain’s last hunter-gatherers’. You can imagine what a smart St Kilda girl like Chrissie thinks of that. Chrissie’s story is woven in with Fred’s. She’s a plucky young girl when we meet her and her narrative describes among other things her fondness for the laird’s son. Archie Macleod is a charismatic but wayward young man who visits the island as a child and instantly causes trouble. Later during his final year at Cambridge, he turns up with Fred Lawson, the two of them settling in for a summer that will change their lives.

Through Fred’s eyes we see a dying way of life. The breathtakingly dangerous work the St Kilda men do each year to harvest fulmar chicks for their oil and meat, abseiling off the steep cliffs that border the main island of Hirta. Then there’s the evenings spent around the fire, the women weaving, the singing and storytelling. The intense devotion the families have for their children who are precious, because so many have died as infants.

Events conspire to have Fred making a new life for himself, though his story is mainly about his wartime bid for freedom, his survival through a terrible winter and his struggle to get back to his girl not knowing what he will find when he gets there. It’s a hymn to the sterling work of French Resistance and ordinary people, often at great cost, to get Allied escapees home.

I loved this book. There is plenty of dramatic tension among the characters, particularly Chrissie, Fred and Archie who are each sympathetic in their own way. Even Archie, who continues to cause trouble as an adult, is well fleshed out, battling his private demons. But mostly it’s the geography that steals the the show here, sending you to the Internet and the haunting images of a lost way of life. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The blurb of this book says Natasha Pulley’s debut novel is ‘utterly beguiling’ and well, I’m not going to argue. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is beguiling in spades. But wonderful too. On the surface it’s a kind of whodunit about a real event, the bombing of Scotland Yard in 1884 by Irish nationalists.

Twenty-five-year-old Nathaniel (Thaniel) Steepleton is a telegraphist for the Home Office – his abandoned skill as a pianist has trained him well for the quick interpretation of cables – when reports of planned bombings of official locations around London come through. Back home at his meagre room in Pimlico, Thaniel discovers a strange but beautiful watch among his effects – a watch that doesn’t work until towards the bombing that almost kills him, but saves him just in time.

Grace Carrow has a watch too. She’s in her last term studying physics at Oxford, hoping to discover and measure the existence of ether, the substance Victorian scientists believed to be the vehicle for light. Light travels faster than sound so it was thought that while sound travelled through air, light must travel through a different substance to make it quicker. Grace is out to prove it, but struggling, not only with something that in the end didn’t pan out, but also her destiny as the daughter of a lord to settle down and marry well.

But all Grace wants is a basement somewhere full of bunsen burners and test-tubes. She’s had to cut off her hair because she accidentally set fire to it, which is kind of convenient for when she sneaks into the male-only library dressed as a man. I like Grace.

These two main characters eventually become connected through a third – you guessed it the watchmaker of the title. Thaniel, wanting to find out more about his watch, hunts him out and finds an enigmatic Japanese artisan, Keita Mori. Mori is also of noble birth and we get a picture of his heritage in Japan which Pulley creates beautifully here. There are further Japanese links – a model village nearby in Knightsbridge and Grace’s friend at Oxford, the dandyish Matsumoto.

And then there’s the clockwork. Mori not only makes beautiful watches, he creates flying insects and has an articulated octopus that steals socks. While the police are wondering if his handiwork is behind the bomb-making terrorising London, Gilbert and Sullivan are rehearsing The Mikado, set to debut at the model village. There are layers of music – which incidentally, Thaniel can see in colours – dazzling magical effects, fireworks, clairvoyance and even modern art incorporated into this complex, delightful and (that word again) beguiling story.

It is so easy to become swept away with all the visual images here, the elegant writing and the Victorian and Japanese settings but you need to have your wits about you to keep up with the plot as Pulley also plays with time and memory. But even if I do feel as if I’ve missed a few important details and a reread may be in order, I can’t help feeling that this has been a particularly pleasurable entertainment. The sequel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, is already on my ‘to read’ list for 2021. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks doesn’t write happy novels but there is much joy to be had in reading them. The writing is wonderful, the characters flawed but interesting with enough of their history that you can see why they are the way they are. With On Green Dolphin Street we have three people, each of them bright and talented, but who are struggling with other people’s expectations of them and the politics of their time.

Mary lost her fiancé in the Africa campaign of World War 2. She didn’t think she’d ever fall in love quite like that again. Then she met Charlie, a dazzling young man who made everyone laugh and the room come alive. We catch up with them a decade or so later, married and living in Washington where Charlie’s a career diplomat at the British Embassy. It’s 1960 and we have a sense of a world where things are beginning to change.

Charlie had been an officer in the war, and still remembers all the letters he’d had to write to the loved ones of his men fallen in battle. At work a lot depends on Charlie too, all that glad-handing, maintaining a perpetual state of exuberance while his finances are shaky to say the least. It’s not surprising that he self-medicates with alcohol.

Then there’s Frank, a journalist fighting his way back into political reporting after an FBI probe deemed him unsafe a few years before – the McCarthy era hadn’t been kind to the press. Frank still dreams of all the enemy soldiers he had to kill in the war, remembering all the chilling details. He considers all the men he sees on the street, wondering if they too are murderers. The thoughts are fleeting as Frank is too busy with an upcoming election. Old hand Richard Nixon is poised to win, if only he can hold off newbie John Kennedy. But it’s the young buck who looks so much more assured on television.

The election provides an interesting backdrop to the main drama of the novel: a love triangle, triggered by the party when Frank met Mary. The story of their affair adds a lot of the dramatic moments through the book, fraught with difficulties of distance (Frank in New York based at the NY Times), and all the people who depend on Mary, particularly her children, but also her parents in England (Mary’s mother is ill) and not least of all, Charlie, who is struggling to keep himself together.

Ultimately it is Mary we most feel for as it is Mary who has to decide the fate of all three. With no career of her own, in spite of a university education and her mother having been a doctor, her role in life is to be the perfect hostess, wife and mother. Under this facade is a seething mess of feelings. In their own ways it’s not so different for Charlie and Frank, the secrets, the emotions. No wonder there are a lot martinis and scotch going down. Goodness, such a lot!

I was very moved by On Green Dolphin Street. It could have been a little maudlin, but it all seemed so real, the characters so intense and believable, and the politics of America in the midst of an election resonating with today. Lovers of New York will be enchanted by Frank’s informative tour of the city. Throughout, we have Faulks’s nice way of prose, though he likes to show off his vocabulary (describing a little boy peeing off a balcony as ‘micturating’). It’s a very minor quibble in a novel that is in all other ways memorable and superbly crafted with an ending that took my breath away. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

I probably wouldn’t have picked up a novel set around the Bubonic Plague of 1348 if I hadn’t embarked on a reading challenge. You had to read a book about a pandemic and dodging dystopian themes I plumped for this historical novel – its tagline: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

Venturing into The Last Hours, I found myself thoroughly swept away into Middle Ages Dorseteshire. Of course I remember all those creepy, atmospheric crime novels of Walters I’d enjoyed years ago so knew she could spin a yarn.

Here we’ve got a dysfunctional family – at its head, lord of the manor, Sir Richard Develish. Bawdy, cruel and lacking any subtlety of thought, he believes he keeps his serfs productive by the threat of violence. But it’s his clever wife, Lady Anne, who works with the serfs to ensure productivity is high for the area, all the while keeping her husband’s potential to harm in check. It helps that she can read and he can’t.

Unfortunately, their daughter, Lady Eleanor, takes after her father in stupidity and general nastiness. At fourteen she has beauty and a small dowry. The plan is to marry her off to a local lord’s son in the hope that the union will win Sir Richard preferment, but the lad is said to be sickly. The story begins with Sir Richard setting out to visit his future son-in-law to see for himself. He is accompanied by his steward Gyles Startout and a small team of armed men to guard the dowry but when they arrive, it is soon obvious that people are falling sick.

Gyles, who acts as eyes and ears for his master and mistress, quickly spots there are good reasons to leave hastily, and the party take flight. But by the time they reach home, everyone is ill or left to die, except Gyles. Bringing news of her husband’s death, Gyles nurses the remaining soldiers and stays on the far side of the Develish moat, quarantining himself. Meanwhile Lady Anne decides to bring in all the serfs from their village to keep them safe. It’s effectively a lock-down.

Lady Anne is pretty smart, and maybe just a little before her time. She learnt to keep the sick separate from the healthy when she was growing up at a convent so keeping the world at bay and shoring up the moat are sensible moves. As well as good practices in hygiene, Lady Anne has taught many of the serfs to read, including tall, dark and handsome Thaddeus Thurkell. Growing up a serf and a bastard, young Thaddeus was maltreated by his adopted father, but fortunately rescued by Lady Anne. Now he’s her right-hand-man. As well as Gyles, it’s Thaddeus Lady Anne turns to for advice about protecting her people, and what to do when supplies run low.

The Last Hours is a rip-roaring read, full of danger and acts of valour, intrigue and secrets. You also get a good picture of social conditions of the time. The role of women as chattels of their landowning husbands. The place of serfs, often at the mercy of harsh laws and crueller masters and their priests who reinforce the status quo. Memories of the Norman conquest of barely three hundred years before still fester with those of French descent having the upper hand and often reviled for it. But times are a-changing and maybe all that is needed is a plague to sort out the sheep from the goats, the survivors from the doomed and to auger a new way of doing things.

I suppose I’ll find out in the sequel, The Turn of Midnight, now on my to-read list. The Last Hours is a tale of endurance and human ingenuity with characters you want to cheer for and all the suspense you need to keep you whipping through its 550-odd pages. A surprisingly quick read and an easy four out of five from me.

Book Review: Jerningham by Cristina Sanders

Cristina Sanders has done an immense amount of research to recreate the first years of colonial settlement in Wellington with her debut novel, Jerningham. Starting off in 1839, the story follows newly arrived Arthur Lugg, an imaginary character, through whose eyes we meet a bunch of the key players in the colony, particularly Colonial William Wakefield and his loose cannon of a nephew, Jerningham Wakefield. They’re the down-under representatives of the New Zealand Company, which sold land that wasn’t exactly theirs to sell. So it’s up to the colonel and his nephew to make it happen.

There are a number of story threads here which help to build a picture of what it was like for the early settlers arriving in a promising new colony, expecting a plot of land on which to start their new life. We all know the story: how Maori were given items ranging from nails to guns to blankets for land – but was the land to be shared or bought outright? And then the ships came, bringing wave upon wave of hopeful new settlers ready to roll up their sleeves and rebuild England’s green and pleasant land.

The story follows the difficult relationship between the Wakefields and Governor Hobson who was pushing through the Treaty of Waitangi, to events building up to the Wairau Affray several years later. Arthur Lugg, first working for Colonel Wakefield as a procurement officer, is a witness to it all as well as a friend and minder to Jerningham who it seems can charm Lugg into anything.

There are some wonderfully evocative scenes as the two travel to Wanganui (as it was spelt then); the river, the bush and the friendly local Maori are all described in detail. Jerningham has his own mini empire, trading with whalers and Maori alike. There’s lots of wine, women and song wherever Jerningham (still barely 20) holes up.

I enjoyed meeting Charles Heaphy – I’ve always loved his stylised watercolours of the country he explored – who becomes a particular friend of Lugg’s. Meanwhile Arthur has his own personal trials, disappointment in love, losing his thumb and almost his life, a struggle with his own personal demons. Somewhat naïve, he fails to see how much he is manipulated by Jerningham.

And behind the scenes the machinations of the New Zealand Company, the governor and the treaty – much of it on morally and legally shaky ground. We get our fair share of earthquakes too.

At the heart of the story is Jerningham, the charmer; a young man of immense talent, if only he could use it wisely. He’s a wild boy but also has the knack for seeing the country as it is, falling into easy friendships with Maori, even daring to sit down to korero (talk) with the powerful chief Te Rauparaha.

Cristina Sanders tells it with plenty of factual detail and colour – what it’s like living in a raupo whare, the basic food (lots of pork and potatoes), a storm at sea, encountering Maori and their way of life for the first time. The workings of the men with power, the greed and the determination. It all makes for a fascinating read for anyone interested in the early years of New Zealand, colonisation or issues of empire. It reminds me why I love historical fiction so much – you can learn a lot about a period and place all wrapped up in a darn good story. It’s an impressive debut and well recommended – a four star read from me.

Book Review: A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland

Is there a word – possibly in German, although I’m not ruling out other languages – for the exquisite misery to be experienced from reading a very sad story? The feeling seems to occur when you have a strong empathy for the character/s, so that their heartbreak becomes your heartbreak. You take comfort that it isn’t you or someone close to you that is suffering, but still you wallow.

One such exquisitely sad book is Marguerite Poland’s 2020 Walter Scott Award nominee, A Sin of Omission. Set during the late 1800s in the Eastern Cape area of South Africa, it follows the life of a young Anglican deacon, Rev. Stephen (Malusie) Mzamane. Rescued as a child on the brink of starvation when his Ngqika people are driven from their land, he is looked after by English missionaries. Given an English name, he becomes a good student, chosen for further schooling in Grahamstown, and eventually sent to Missionary College at Canterbury in England.

Here Stephen is again rescued, this time by fellow student, Albert Newnham, who helps him navigate the tricky waters of living in English society. Stephen teaches Albert Xhosa in exchange for Latin and Greek and the two become the best of friends. Stephen is entertained to tea and made to feel special, but on his return to Grahamstown he is reminded of the racial inequality between the governing white colonists and the indigenous population, even among supposed Christians. So while Stephen can speak like an Englishman, and has a fine intellect and a powerful Christian faith, his colour prevents him the usual privileges accorded to newly-trained missionaries.

Stephen is sent to an outpost at some distance with a tiny parish, a meagre stipend no support. The locals are poor, the church and his cottage are made of mud brick. As yet to qualify as a vicar, he craves the books and teaching he might have had if he’d gone to Grahamstown as hoped, and where Albert eventually arrives with his wife and baby. Their friendship is also put on hold by the demands Albert faces from his fussy young wife.

In the background, political instability creates further tension, rebels are mustering and divisions among the different tribes highlighted. Stephen’s brother Mzamo (he has refused the Christian name of Saul that was given him by the missionaries), a rebellious and charismatic man, gets into trouble more than once and so does Stephen by association. Poland creates some brilliant minor characters too – the understanding, no-nonsense and larger than life Rev. Turvey particularly stands out.

It all comes together to create a well-researched and brilliantly told story about this particular corner of colonial history from various points of view. But most particularly it is the story of a young man of great principal and courage who is not allowed to be true to his family, or his tribal heritage, yet neither is he allowed any kind of standing in the English missionary culture that has adopted him. It is a tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and according to the author’s note at the back, a story based on the life of a real person.

A Sin of Omission had me in thrall for about a week I was still thinking about it days later (and I imagine it will still be lurking in my thoughts months later). I cannot recommend it highly enough and will be looking out more books by this author. A rare five out of five from me.

Book Review: Motherland by William Nicholson

Does anyone write about the human condition with as much heart as William Nicholson? Reading his novels always gives me the impression that he loves his characters as if they were family. He brings us their stories, but also their frailties and dreams, as if he’s been through exactly what they’re going through himself. Often set against an interesting background of political or social upheaval.

In the case of Motherland we start off in the middle of World War II. It’s 1942, and three characters meet and fall in love. Unfortunately, both Larry and Ed fall for Kitty when they meet her in Sussex. She’s an ATS driver, a job she enjoys, while Ed’s a Royal Marine commando and Larry, who’d rather be painting, is a liaison officer with Combined Ops under Mountbatten. Ed and Larry both went to the same school and are each other’s oldest friends, which makes this love triangle even harder to navigate.

Kitty chooses Ed, who is dashing and exciting, but also has a darkness to his nature, probably a problem with depression. Meanwhile Mountbatten and his team are planning a raid on Dieppe, using the commandos and the Canadian Infantry stationed nearby. Larry begs to go, even though he doesn’t have to fight, and he and Ed are caught up in one of the worst military disasters of the war. Thousands of casualties, and while Ed is made a hero, an accolade he loathes, Larry has to come to terms with his lack of bravery in the heat of battle.

The effects of Dieppe on all three, but particularly Ed and Larry, resonate through the book, as each settles into life post-war. Ed struggles to find a vocation and Kitty has to give up work, expected to devote her life to husband and child. Larry tries to make a go of painting, at the risk of disappointing his father who wants him to join the family banana importing company, which had made their fortune.

Mostly the book seems to be Larry’s story. We are with him as he witnesses the effects of the partition of India in 1947 (he briefly joins Mountbatten’s lot again), and later, the exploitation of workers in Jamaican banana enterprises. We have a window into his heart and his abiding love for Kitty, but also onto some of the big events of the 1940s. There’s a collection of supporting characters who each are well-rounded and have their own issues: Kitty’s ATS friend Louise who has never had as much luck with men as Kitty and decides to marry the owner of the estate where the troops are stationed – ineffectual but kind-hearted George. There’re the women in Larry’s life who just aren’t Kitty. Each gives us a glimpse of the narrow roles men and women played in mid 20th century society, and the problems entailed in wanting something else.

Motherland has characters that appear in other books by Nicholson, such as Ed and Kitty’s daughter Pamela who is a protagonist in Reckless, set against a backdrop of 1960s London and the Profumo Affair, while news of the Cuban Missile Crisis has everyone on edge. Another great read and evidence that Williamson loves his characters enough to give them more books. I’m happy with that. Motherland is a three-and-a-half-out-of-five read from me.

Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

familiarsStacey Halls’s debut novel, The Familiars, concerns the Pendle witch trials which occurred in Lancashire in 1612. It’s a topic Hall has always been fascinated with, according to her author blurb, and it shows. The novel is well-researched and instead of taking the easy path and writing a story around her own made-up characters, virtually all the book’s personnel really existed.

First off there is Fleetwood Shuttleworth – a seventeen-year-old noblewoman, whose main role in life is to produce an heir. She’s had three miscarriages already, and just when she begins to feel she might be pregnant again, she finds a doctor’s letter to husband Richard to say that giving birth is likely to kill her.

Still pale and sickly from her last miscarriage, Fleetwood is helped by her unexpected friendship with midwife Alice Grey and gradually she begins to hope she may survive to be a mother. But when Alice is accused of witchcraft and murder, Fleetwood has to fight back if she wants to save both her friend and her own life. Continue reading “Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls”

Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

y648An author I’ve picked up fairly consistently over the years is Tracey Chevalier, who writes historical novels – you may remember The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie. Her books are usually a fairly light, engaging read, but she has a knack of digging out a very human story from an often overlooked corner of history.

Remarkable Creatures is a novel about two women who were instrumental in the discovery of fossilised remains of dinosaur-era animals at the coastal town of Lyme Regis. We are just after Waterloo, and the Origin of the Species has yet to be written so the Bible’s version of how God made the world holds sway. Continue reading “Quick Review: Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier”