Back in January I had the idea to catch up as much as I can on previous Wellcome Book Prize long- and shortlists while the Prize is on hiatus. I decided to start with a pair of novels about polio from my public library system: The Golden Age by Joan London and Nemesis by Philip Roth. The latter, especially, has taken on new significance due to its evocation of a time of panic over a public health crisis (see this article, but beware spoilers). On a fellow book reviewer’s recommendation, I also took Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks off the shelf and read it at the same time as the Roth.
The Golden Age by Joan London (2014)
[First published in the UK in 2016; on the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 longlist]
The Golden Age was a real children’s polio hospital in Western Australia, but London has peopled it with her own fictional cast. In 1953–4, Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs, polio patients aged 12 going on 13, fall in love in the most improbable of circumstances: “The backs of their hands brushed as they walked side by side on their crutches. Their bloodstreams recharged by exercise and fresh air, they experienced a fiery burst of pleasure.”
Frank is much the more vibrant character thanks to his family’s wartime past in Hungary and his budding vocation as a poet, which was spurred on by his friendship with Sullivan, a fellow inmate at his previous rehabilitation center. The narrative spends time with the nurses, parents and other patients but keeps coming back to Frank and Elsa. However, Chapter 7, with Frank and his mother Ida still back in Budapest, was my favorite.
I was reminded of Tracy Farr’s work (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt), especially the look back from decades later. This has a strong premise and some great lines, but for me there was something slightly lacking in the execution.
There was beauty everywhere, strange beauty, even—especially?—in a children’s polio hospital.
Polio is like love, Frank says … Years later, when you think you have recovered, it comes back.
Nemesis by Philip Roth (2010)
[On the Wellcome Book Prize 2011 shortlist]
In the summer of 1944 Newark, New Jersey is hit hard by polio. As a local playground director, 23-year-old Bucky Cantor is distressed when several of his charges become ill; a couple of them even die within a matter of days.
At first Bucky, whose poor eyesight kept him out of the War, sees his job as his own field of duty, but gradually fear and helplessness drive him away. He escapes to the Pocono Mountains to join his fiancée, Marcia, as a summer camp counselor, but soon realizes the futility of trying to outrun a virus. Unable to accept the randomness of bad luck, he blames God – and himself – for the epidemic’s spread.
Despite our better general understanding of epidemiology today, there were still many passages in this novel that rang true for me as they picture life proceeding as normal until paranoia starts to take hold:
Despite polio’s striking in the neighborhood, the store-lined main street was full of people out doing their Saturday grocery shopping…
(Bucky) Look, you mustn’t be eaten up with worry … What’s important is not to infect the children with the germ of fear. We’ll come through this, believe me. We’ll all do our bit and stay calm and do everything we can to protect the children, and we’ll all come through this together.
The important thing, he said, was always to wash your hands after you handled paper money or coins. What about the mail, someone else said … What are you going to do, somebody retorted, suspend delivering the mail? The whole city would come to a halt. Six or seven weeks ago they would have been talking about the war news.
Roth really captures the atmosphere of alarm and confusion, but doesn’t always convey historical and medical information naturally, sometimes resorting to paragraphs of context and representative conversations like in the last quote above. I also wasn’t sure about the use of a minor character (revealed on page 108 to be one of Bucky’s playground kids and a polio patient) as the narrator. This seemed to me to make Bucky more of a symbolic hero than a genuine character. Still, this was a timely and riveting read.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision was made to quarantine it. A benevolent landowner arranged for regular deliveries of food and other supplies to just outside the parish boundaries. The villagers made an oath that no one would leave until the pestilence was eradicated. One year later, two-thirds of its residents were dead. Brooks imagines that the “plague seeds” came to the village in a bolt of cloth that was delivered from London to the tailor George Viccars, who lodged with widow Anna Frith. Viccars is the first victim and the disease quickly spreads outward from Anna’s home.
Anna barely has time to grieve her own losses before she’s called into service: along with the minister’s wife, Elinor Mompellion, she steps in as a midwife, herbal healer and even a miner. The village succumbs to several sobering trajectories. Suspicion of women’s traditional wisdom leads some to take vigilante action against presumed witches. Unscrupulous characters like Anna’s father, who sets up as a gravedigger, try to make a profit out of others’ suffering. Frustration with the minister’s apparent ineffectuality attracts others to forms of religious extremism. Like Bucky, people cannot help but see the hand of God here.
Perhaps what I was most missing in the London and Roth novels (and in Hamnet, which bears such striking thematic similarities to Year of Wonders) was intimate first-person narration, which is just what you get here from Anna. The voice and the historical recreation are flawless, and again there were so many passages that felt apt:
Stay here, in the place that you know, and in the place where you are known. … Stay here, and here we will be for one another.
the current times did seem to ask us all for every kind of sacrifice
(once they start meeting for church in a meadow) We placed ourselves so that some three yards separated each family group, believing this to be sufficient distance to avoid the passing of infection.
Yet it is a good day, for the simple fact that no one died upon it. We are brought to a sorry state, that we measure what is good by such a shortened yardstick.
I’ve docked a half-star only because of a far-fetched ending that reminded me of that to The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Apart from that, this is just what I want from my historical fiction.
Are you doing any reading about epidemics?
It’s my second month participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). This time the challenge starts with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. Alas, as far as I can tell this hasn’t yet been published outside of Australia. Which is such a shame, because I absolutely adored…
#1 Salt Creek, Treloar’s debut novel. I read it in 2018 and deemed it “one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read.” A widowed teacher settled in England looks back on the eight ill-fated years her family spent at an outpost in South Australia in the 1850s–60s. It’s a piercing story of the clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs.
#2 I recently saw someone on Twitter remarking on the apparent trend for book titles to have the word “Salt” in them. Of the few examples he mentioned, I’ve read and enjoyed Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, which was on the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist last year. The book’s nine short stories are steeped in myth and magic, but often have a realistic shell.
#3 One story in Salt Slow, “Formerly Feral,” is about a teenager who has a wolf for a stepsister. So, to get back to the literal wording of our starting point (a homonym, anyway; I didn’t know whether to take this in the Salt direction or the Wolf direction; now I’ve done both!), another work of fiction I read that incorporated wolves was The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, a fantastic novel to which Scottish independence and rewilding form a backdrop.
#4 The controversy over the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park – and the decision to remove their endangered status, thus declaring open season for hunters – is at the heart of the nonfiction study American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee. “The West was caught up in a culture war, and for some people it was more than just a metaphor,” he writes.
#5 Wolves and rewilding in the American West also come into the memoir-in-essays Surrender by Joanna Pocock, about the two years of loss and change she spent in Missoula, Montana and her sense of being a foreigner both there and on her return to London.
#6 A wonderful memoir-in-essays that was criminally overlooked in 2016 was Riverine by Angela Palm (my BookBrowse review). It has such a strong sense of place, revealing how traces of the past are still visible in the landscape and how our environment shapes who we are. Palm reflects on the winding course of her life in the Midwest and the people who meant most to her along the way, including a friend who was later sentenced to life in prison for murdering their elderly neighbors. In keeping with the watery imagery, there is a stream-of-consciousness element to the writing.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
I don’t often get a chance to read the wonderful-sounding Australian books I see on prize shortlists or on Kate’s blog, so I was delighted when Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was published in the UK last year. It may just be my mind making easy associations, but Josephine Wilson’s second novel indeed reminded me of other Australian fiction I’ve enjoyed, including The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, and The Singing Ship by Rebecca Winterer. I can’t quite put my finger on what these novels have in common despite their disparate time settings. A hot and forbidding landscape? An enduring sense of pioneer spirit, of survival against the odds? All four, to an extent, pit an explorer’s impetus against family trauma and/or racial difference.
The antihero of Extinctions is widower Frederick Lothian, who at age 69 is a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s January 2006, the middle of a blistering Australian summer, and amid his usual morbid activities of reading the newspaper obituaries and watching his elderly co-residents fall over outside his air-conditioned unit, he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. A retired engineer, he’s an expert on concrete construction as well as a noted collector of modernist furniture. But he’s been much less successful in his personal life. His son is in a care home after a devastating accident, and his adopted daughter Caroline, who is part Aborigine, blames and avoids Fred. A run-in with a nosy neighbor, Jan, forces him to face the world – and his past – again.
Meanwhile, Caroline is traveling in the UK to secure specimens for a museum exhibit on extinct species, and the idea of feeling utterly lonesome, like the last of one’s kind, recurs: Frederick sits stubbornly on his own at St Sylvan’s, pondering the inevitability of death; Caroline and Jan, both adopted, don’t have the comfort of a family lineage; and the museum specimens whose photographs are dotted through the novel (including the last passenger pigeon, Martha, which also – not coincidentally, I’m sure – was Fred’s wife’s name) represent the end of the line.
I loved pretty much everything about this book: the thematic connections, the gentle sense of humor (especially during Fred and Jan’s expensive restaurant dégustation), the chance for a curmudgeonly protagonist to redeem himself, and the spot-on writing. Highly recommended.
A favorite passage:
“Like many educated people, Frederick had his opinions, most of which were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths, but in reality politics and modern history were his weak points – along with poetry. Where poetry and politics were concerned he feared a lack of foundation, which left him vulnerable to challenge. Deep down he knew that opinion – like concrete – was most resilient when well founded and reinforced.”
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.
I’m coming towards the close of my 20 Books of Summer challenge. Now, I’ve done plenty of substituting – some of my choices from early in the summer will have to spill over into the autumn (for instance, I’m reading the May Sarton biography slowly and carefully so am unlikely to finish it before early September) or simply wait for another time – but in the end I will have read 20+ books I own in print by women authors. (Ongoing/still to come are a few buddy reads: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Anna Caig; Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay with Naomi of Consumed by Ink and Penny of Literary Hoarders; and West with the Night by Beryl Markham with Laila of Big Reading Life.)
The two #20Booksof Summer I finished most recently have been the best so far. I’d heard great things about these debut novels but let years go by before getting hold of them, and then months more before picking them up. Though one is more than twice the length of the other, they are both examples of large-scale storytelling at its best: we as readers are privy to the sweep of a whole life, and get to know the protagonists so well that we ache for their sorrow. What might have helped the authors tap into the emotional power of their stories is that both drew on family history, to different extents, when creating the characters and incidents.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013)
Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. When we meet our 81-year-old narrator, she’s just performed at the 1991 Transformer Festival and has caught the attention of a younger acolyte who wants to come interview her at home near Perth, Australia for a documentary film – a setup that reminded me a bit of May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. It’s pretty jolting the first time we see Lena smoke, but as her life story unfolds it becomes clear that it’s been full of major losses, some nearly unbearable in their cruelty, so it’s no surprise that she would wish to forget.
Though Lena bridles at Mo’s many probing questions, she realizes this may be her last chance to have her say and starts typing up a record of her later years to add to a sheaf of autobiographical stories she wrote earlier in life. These are interspersed with the present action to create a vivid collage of Lena’s life: growing up with a pet monkey in Singapore, moving to New Zealand with her lover, frequenting jazz clubs in Paris, and splitting her time between teaching music in England and performing in New York City.
With perfect pitch and recall, young Lena moved easily from the piano to the cello to the theremin. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion. Life has been an overwhelming force from which she’s only wrested fleeting happiness, and there’s a quiet, melancholic dignity to her voice. This was nominated for several prizes in Australia, where Farr is from, but has been unfairly overlooked elsewhere.
“I once again wring magic from the wires by simply plucking and stroking my fingers in the aether.”
“I felt the rush of the electrical field through my body. I felt like a god. I felt like a queen. I felt like a conqueror. And I wanted to play it forever.”
“All of the stories of my life have begun and ended with the ocean.”
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt was published in the UK by Aardvark Bureau in 2016. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010)
It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read. It bears similarities to other war sagas such as Birdsong and All the Light We Cannot See, but the focus on the Hungarian Jewish experience was new for me. Although there are brief glimpses backwards and forwards, most of the 750-page book is set during the years 1937–45, as Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe.
A story of survival against all the odds, this doesn’t get especially dark until the last sixth or so, and doesn’t stay really dark for long. So if you think you can’t handle another Holocaust story, I’d encourage you to make an exception for Orringer’s impeccably researched and plotted novel. Even in labor camps, there are flashes of levity, like the satirical newspapers that Andras and a friend distribute among their fellow conscripts, while the knowledge that the family line continues into the present day provides a hopeful ending.
This is a flawless blend of family legend, wider history, and a good old-fashioned love story. I read the first 70 pages on the plane back from America but would have liked to find more excuses to read great big chunks of it at once. Sinking deep into an armchair with a doorstopper is a perfect summer activity (though also winter … any time, really). [First recommended to me by Andrea Borod (aka the Book Dumpling) over five years ago.]
“He felt the stirring of a new ache, something like homesickness but located deeper in his mind; it was an ache for the time when his heart had been a simple and satisfied thing, small as the green apples that grew in his father’s orchard.”
“[It] seemed to be one of the central truths of his life: that in any moment of happiness there was a reminder of bitterness or tragedy, like the ten plague drops spilled from the Passover cup, or the taste of wormwood in absinthe that no amount of sugar could disguise.”
“For years now, he understood at last, he’d had to cultivate the habit of blind hope. It had become as natural to him as breathing.”
Salt Creek is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read. All the harder, then, to believe that it’s Lucy Treloar’s debut novel. Since its initial release in Australia in 2015, it has gone on to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Miles Franklin Award for Australian novels. We have Claire McAlpine of Word by Word to thank for helping this book find a publisher in the UK. I can particularly recommend it to fans of The Essex Serpent and English Passengers, and there are also resonances with Rebecca Winterer’s Australia-set The Singing Ship.
Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. Her luckless father tried whaling in Adelaide before turning to cheese-making as his next far-fetched money-making venture. From Quaker stock, Papa believed the natives should be well treated and even all but adopted an aboriginal boy named Tully, getting him to bathe and wear clothes and educating him alongside his seven children. However, as Hester hints starting early on in the novel, having a white family monopolizing resources put an impossible strain on relations with the natives.
It seems an inevitable irony of reviewing – or maybe it’s just me? – that the books you love the most are the hardest to write about. However can I do this book justice? I wonder about lots of 5-star books. It’s easier to put together a review when you have some mixture of positive and negative things to say, but I have no faults to find with Salt Creek. It flawlessly evokes its time period and somewhat bleak setting. Hester’s narration is as lyrical as it is nostalgic and matter-of-fact, and I sympathized with her desperation not to be drawn into a Victorian housewife’s cycle of endless pregnancies. The characterization is spot on, especially for figures like Papa or Tully who could have easily been reduced to stereotypes.
Most of all, this is the piercing story of a clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs. You might think notions of dominion and looking after ‘poor natives’ are outdated, but just listen in to what particular groups have to say about the environment and intervention abroad and you’ll realize that this is as relevant as ever. Salt Creek comes with my highest recommendation.
Some favorite lines:
“Poor Papa. He pitted himself against the land, yet it was impervious to all his learning and effort and incantatory prayers. The land had its own drives and they ran against Papa’s, blunting all his purposes.”
“I would not have a baby or that would be my life. There would be another and another and nothing left of my self; my life being decided for me.”
“Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.”
“It seemed as if every part of the lagoon had a name and a story and a meaning. The stories were all around us wherever we went. There was scarcely a place without one and it felt as if we were nothing but one more story inside this world and the stories were without number.”
“The longer I looked the more that impression of civilization seemed an illusion.”
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.