“Maybe we can see that the animals are like us, or we are like animals.”
Laura Kaye’s impressive debut novel, English Animals, is a fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging. It has particular resonance in the wake of Brexit, showing the apparent lack of a cohesive English identity in spite of sometimes knee-jerk nationalism.
The novel takes place within roughly a year and is narrated by Mirka Komárova, a 19-year-old Slovakian who left home suddenly after an argument with her parents and arrives in the English countryside to work for thirty-somethings Richard and Sophie Parker. She doesn’t know what to expect from her new employers: “Richard and Sophie sounded like good names for good people. But they could be anything, they could be completely crazy.”
It’s a live-in governess-type arrangement, and yet there are no children – Mirka later learns that Sophie is having trouble getting pregnant. Instead Mirka drives the volatile Parkers to the pub so they can get drunk whenever they want, and also helps with their various money-making ventures: cooking and cleaning for B&B guests and the summer’s wedding parties, serving as a beater for pheasant shoots, and assisting with Richard’s taxidermy business. Her relationship with them remains uncertain: she’s not a servant but not quite an equal either; it’s a careful friendship powered by jokes with Richard and cryptic crossword clues with Sophie.
At first Mirka seems disgusted by Sophie’s shabby family home and the many animals around the place, both living and dead. Initially squeamish about skinning animal corpses, she gets used to it as taxidermy becomes her artistic expression. Taking inspiration from whimsical Victorian portraits of dead animals in costume, she makes intricate modern tableaux with names like Mice Raving, Freelance Squirrels and Rats at the Office Party. When her art catches the eye of a London agent, she starts preparing her pieces for an exhibit and is the subject of a magazine profile. The interviewer writes this about her:
Mirka is someone who understands the philosophical nature of her art. How, in our strange condition of being simultaneously within and outside the animal kingdom, we invest taxidermy with our longing for permanence.
I loved the level of detail about Mirka’s work – it’s rare to encounter such a precise account of handiwork in fiction, as opposed to in nonfiction like Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and David Esterly’s The Lost Carving; Kaye herself is a potter, which might explain it – and I appreciated the many meanings that dead animals take on in the novel. They’re by turns food, art objects and sacrificial victims. Taxidermy is a perfect juxtaposition of physicality and the higher echelons of art, a canny way of blending death and beauty.
But of course the human residents of this community also fall into the title’s category: Many of them are what you might call ‘beastly’, and the threat of violence is never far away given Richard and Sophie’s argumentativeness. A promiscuous blonde, Sophie reminded me of Daisy in The Great Gatsby, so often described as careless: “You are a dangerous person, Sophie,” Mirka says. “Don’t say that. I didn’t mean to hurt anything.” Mirka replies, “You don’t care about other things. Everything is a game. Everyone is a toy for you to play with.”
The two different blurbs I’ve seen for the book both give too much away, so I will simply say that there’s an air of sexual tension and latent hostility surrounding this semi-isolated home, and it’s intriguing to watch the dynamic shift between Richard, Sophie and Mirka. I felt that I never quite knew what would happen or how far Kaye would take things.
I did have a few minor misgivings, though: sometimes Mirka’s narration reads like a stilted translation into English, rather than a fluent outpouring; there’s a bit too much domestic detail and heavy-handed symbolism; and the themes of xenophobia and homophobia might have been introduced more subtly, rather than using certain characters as overt mouthpieces.
All the same, I read this with great interest and curiosity throughout. It’s a powerful look at assumptions versus reality, how we approach the Other, and the great effort it takes to change; it’s easier to remain trapped in the roles we’ve acquired. I’d recommend this to readers of Polly Samson, Francesca Segal and even Rachel Johnson (the satire Shire Hell). In particular, I was reminded of Shelter by Jung Yun and Little Children by Tom Perrotta: though suburban in setting, they share Kaye’s preoccupations with sex and violence and the ways we try to hide our true selves beneath a façade of conformity.
This is one of the most striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years; it’s left me eager to see what Laura Kaye will do next.
English Animals was published by Little, Brown UK on January 12th. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the review copy.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the blog tour for English Animals. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
I’ve set just a few modest goals for the coming year’s reading:
- As always, I’d like to focus on reading more of the books I actually own. I went around and did an inventory of unread books in the house and came up with 221. That could easily fill two-thirds or more of next year, yet I know I’m unlikely to cut down on my library borrowing or NetGalley and Edelweiss requests. I think the strategy will be to always have two of my own books on the go at all times, one fiction and one nonfiction, no matter how many other public library or Kindle books I’m reading.
- Some of the books I most want to tackle have 500+ pages. I wonder if I have enough really long books to sustain a Doorstopper of the Month feature? To get a head start on this goal, this past week I started City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Also on the shelf are A Suitable Boy, This Thing of Darkness, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Until I Find You, and a few chunky biographies; I’m also sure to get some long books from the library and NetGalley.
I read very few classics in 2016, just a couple short books by Jerome K. Jerome, a Stefan Zweig novella, Tender Is the Night, and two rediscovered 1930s works from the Apollo Classics series. So that’s something to rectify in 2017. Three classics from the list of “Books to Read in Your 30s” in The Novel Cure are calling to me, and it’s also high time I read some more Dickens (maybe I’ll finally return to Dombey and Son?), Trollope (at least The Warden, if not more of the Barsetshire series), Brontë (Anne, in this case) and Woolf (The Voyage Out). Maybe I’ll also start a Classic of the Month feature?
Regarding my career…
I’d like to replace some of my individual book reviewing with longer articles. For instance, this past year Foreword magazine invited me to write three articles surveying new and upcoming books in various genres: young adult, climate change and middle grade. It’s more rewarding (and remunerative) to prioritize full-length articles.
Regarding the blog…
I’d love to get involved in more blog tours and collaborative challenges. I also hope to continue maintaining a balance between straightforward reviews/lists and different stuff, whether that’s travel reports or more introspective pieces. My dream is still to judge a literary prize, even if that’s just as part of a shadow panel.
What are some of your goals for 2017 – reading-related or otherwise?
Tomorrow: Some final statistics on my reading for the year.
Despite being educated through university level in the United States, I’m better acquainted with British literature than American, in part due to my own predilections. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are two of the American authors I’ve most struggled with. For one thing, their novels’ titles are interchangeable, abstract quotations that I can never keep straight. Which is which? The Sun Also Rises is the bullfighting one, right? And is A Farewell to Arms the other one I’ve read? Fitzgerald is an even worse offender as titles go, with The Great Gatsby the only one that actually refers to its contents.
For the record, I recognize The Great Gatsby as a masterpiece, and I absolutely loved A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of life in Paris. I also enjoy reading about the Hemingways (Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemingway) and the Fitzgeralds (Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools). But when I’ve tried to go deeper into the authors’ work, it hasn’t been an unmitigated success. The above two Hemingway novels are just okay for me. The Sun Also Rises struck me as having a thin plot, two-dimensional characters and repetitious dialogue.
When I eagerly approached Tender Is the Night last year – having recently read a novel about the real-life couple who inspired Fitzgerald’s portrait of Dick and Nicole Diver, Gerald and Sara Murphy (Villa America by Liza Klaussmann) – I pulled out a lot of great individual lines but had trouble following the basic plot and only really enjoyed the early chapters of Book Two. Here are some of those pearls of prose:
The delight in Nicole’s face—to be a feather again instead of a plummet, to float and not to drag. She was a carnival to watch—at times primly coy, posing, grimacing and gesturing—sometimes the shadow fell and the dignity of old suffering flowed down into her finger tips.
somehow Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not apposite and complementary; she was Dick too, the drought in the marrow of his bones. He could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.
Well, you never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives.
women marry all their husbands’ talents and naturally, afterwards, are not so impressed with them as they may keep up the pretense of being.
Imagine my surprise when I learned from a note at the end of my Penguin paperback that Fitzgerald made a major revision that rearranged the action into chronological order, thus opening with Book Two. That text, edited by Malcolm Cowley, appeared in 1951 and was printed by Penguin from 1955. However, the version I have – as reprinted from 1982 onwards – goes back to Fitzgerald’s first edition. Would I have had a more favorable reaction to the novel if I’d encountered it in its revised version? Somehow I think so.
Is there a Hemingway or Fitzgerald novel that will change my opinion about these literary lions? Share your favorites.
And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.
My pristine paperback copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch cost all of £1 at a used bookshop in Henley. Talk about entertainment value for money! Although it took me nearly a month to read, starting with Christmas week, it was more gripping than that timeframe seems to suggest. I read it under a pair of cats in the bitter-cold first week of a Pennsylvania January, then tucked it under my arm for airport queues (no way would it fit in my overstuffed carry-on bag) and finally finished it during my first week of bouncing back from transatlantic jetlag. Somehow Theo Decker’s fictional travels – from New York to Las Vegas and back; to Amsterdam and home again – blended with my sense of having been on a literal journey with the book to make this one of my most memorable reading experiences in years.
That’s not to say that the book was flawless. In fact, I found the first 200 pages or so pretty slow. You almost certainly know the basics of the plot already, but if not, glance away from the rest of this paragraph. Theo, 13, is separated from his mother during a terrorist attack on a New York City museum. Among the dying he encounters an older man – guardian of the pretty red-haired girl Theo had been checking out just moments before – who gives him a ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell antiques. But this is not the only souvenir Theo takes from his ordeal; he also steals the little Dutch masterpiece by Fabritius that appears on the book’s cover. Stumbling around the streets of New York, the shell-shocked Theo undoubtedly resembles a 9/11 victim. As the years pass, he is moved from guardian to guardian, but a few things remain constant: his memory of his mother, his obsession with the painting, and his love for Pippa, that red-haired girl who, like him, was among the survivors.
The aftermath of the attack was the most tedious section for me. It felt like it took forever for Theo’s future to be set in motion, and I thought if I heard him complain of how his head was killing him one more time I might just scream. It’s when Theo gets to Vegas, and specifically when he meets Boris, that the book really takes off. Boris is simply a terrific character. He’s lived all over and has a mixed-up accent that’s part Australian with heavy Slavic overtones. Like Theo, he has an unreliable father who is often too drunk to care what his kid is doing. This leaves the two young teens free to do whatever they want, usually something classified as illegal. Indeed, there’s a lot of drug use in this book, described in the kind of detail that makes you wonder what Tartt was up to during her years at Bennington.
As a young man Theo, back in New York, joins Hobie (of Hobart and Blackwell) in selling antiques both genuine and ersatz, and reconnects with an old friend’s family in a surprising manner. The story of what becomes of the painting was in danger of turning into a clichéd crime caper, yet Tartt manages to transform it into a richly philosophical interrogation of the nature of fate. Theo’s intimate first-person narration makes him the heir first of Dickensian orphans and later of the kind of tortured antiheroes you’d find in a nineteenth-century Russian novel: “I had the queasy sense of my own life … as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.”
Similar to my experience with Of Human Bondage, I found that the latter part of the novel was the best. The last 200 pages are not only the most addictive plot-wise but also the most introspective; all my Post-It flags congregate here. It’s also full of the best examples of Tartt’s distinctive prose. The best way I can describe it is to say it’s like brush strokes: especially in the scenes set in Amsterdam, she’s creating a still life with words. Often this is through sentences listing images, in phrases separated by commas. Here’s a few examples:
Floodlit window. Mortuary glow from the cold case. Beyond the fog-condensed glass, trickling with water, winged sprays of orchids quivered in the fan’s draft: ghost-white, lunar, angelic.
Out on the street: holiday splendor and delirium. Reflections danced and shimmered on black water: laced arcades above the street, garlands of light on the canal boats.
Medieval city: crooked streets, lights draped on bridges and shining off rain-peppered canals, melting in the drizzle. Infinity of anonymous shops, twinkling window displays, lingerie and garter belts, kitchen utensils arrayed like surgical instruments, foreign words everywhere…
Such sentence construction shouldn’t work, yet it does. I’ve never been one to fawn over Donna Tartt, but this is writing I can really appreciate.
[I did take issue with some of the punctuation in the novel, though whether that’s down to Tartt, her editor or the UK publication team I couldn’t say. Take, for instance, this description of a station clerk: “a broad, fair, middle aged woman, pillowy at the bosom and impersonally genial like a procuress in a second rate genre painting.” Another solid allusion to Dutch art, but missing two hyphens if you ask me.]
The Goldfinch contains multitudes. It’s the Dickensian coming-of-age tale of a hero much like David Copperfield who’s “possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted.” It’s a realist record of criminal escapades. It’s a story of unrequited love. It’s a convincing first-hand picture of anxiety, addiction and regret. It has a great road trip, an endearing small dog, and a last line that rivals The Great Gatsby’s (I’ll leave you to experience it for yourself). It’s a meditation on time, fate and the purpose of art. It’s not perfect, and yet I – even as someone who pretty much never rereads books – can imagine reading this again in the future and gleaning more with hindsight. That makes it worthy of one of my rare 5-star recommendations.
Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Four adult siblings gather at their grandfather’s Devon vicarage for one last summer holiday before the house is sold. Their interactions, past and present, skirt the edges of tragedy and show the secrets and psychological intricacies any family harbors. Hadley writes beautifully subtle stories of English family life. Here she channels Elizabeth Bowen with a setup borrowed from The House in Paris: the novel is divided into three parts, titled “The Present,” “The Past,” and “The Present.” That structure allows for a deeper look at what the house and a neighboring cottage have meant to the central family. Hadley writes great descriptive prose and has such insight into family dynamics. Releases September 3rd.
Between Gods by Alison Pick: At a time of transition – preparing for her wedding and finishing her first novel, set during the Holocaust – the author decided to convert to Judaism, the faith of her father’s Czech family. There are so many things going on in this sensitive and engrossing memoir: depression, her family’s Holocaust history, her conversion, career struggles, moving to Toronto, adjusting to marriage, and then pregnancy and motherhood following soon after – leading full circle to a time of postpartum depression. That said, this book is exactly what you want from a memoir: it vividly depicts a time of tremendous change, after which the subject is still somehow the same person, or perhaps more herself than ever.
Villa America by Liza Klaussmann [the full text of my review is available for free this week as part of Editor’s Choice]: In her second novel, Klaussmann explores the glittering, tragic lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy, real-life models for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. The book is slow to start with, with the first third unnecessarily devoted to Gerald’s and Sara’s childhoods and courtship. It is not until the Murphys are established in France and receive visits from fellow artists that the book really comes to life. It is easy to see why the Murphys attracted hangers-on. Yet beneath the façade of glamour, there is real sadness and struggle. Gerald’s uncertain sexuality is a tacit issue between him and Sara, and sickness strikes the family with cruel precision. The novel set up a beautiful contrast between happiness and tragedy.
Stop the Diet, I Want to Get Off! by Lisa Tillinger Johansen: Yo-yo dieters and newbies alike should pick up Johansen’s witty book before wasting any time, money, or heartache on ineffective fad diets. Surveying diets old and new in a conversational style, Johansen gives the merits and dangers of each and suggests realistic principles for healthy eating and exercise. She bases her advice on solid facts, but cannily avoids the dry, scientific tone some experts might use. Instead, she uses chatty, informal language and personal stories to enliven her writing.
The Year of Necessary Lies by Kris Radish: Radish’s tenth novel highlights women’s role in the Audubon Society campaign to eradicate feathers from ladies’ hats. Her fictional heroine, Julia Briton, is a composite portrait of the many courageous women who stood up to plume hunters and the fashion industry alike in the early years of the twentieth century. “I did not simply want to survive, but to live with great passion and to do something that made a difference in the world,” Julia declares. Recommended for fans of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings.
Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques: In 2011 Marques, a freelance journalist, spent five months visiting the dying through a Portuguese home palliative care project. The resulting book falls into two parts: “Travel Notes about Death,” one-line aphorisms and several-paragraph anecdotes; and “Portraits,” case studies and interview transcripts from three families facing the death of a loved one. The lack of a straightforward narrative and the minimal presence of the author mean that the book overall feels disjointed. Nonetheless, it is a thought-provoking look at hospice services and emotions surrounding death. Releases September 3rd.
Caught by Lisa Moore: A classic cat-and-mouse story in which a Canadian drug smuggler escapes from prison to score another load of marijuana from Colombia. Moore paints Slaney and Hearn as “modern-day folk heroes,” and her writing elevates what could have been a plain crime story into real literature. From the title onwards, the book is heavy with foreshadowing as Moore exploits the dramatic irony that readers know the police have a sting operation trailing Slaney the whole way. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the novel is how it maintains tension even though the outcome seems inevitable. “The best stories … we’ve known the end from the beginning.” To my surprise, Caught is not just a good old-fashioned adventure story, but also has the epic, tragic weight of Homer’s Odyssey.
Field Notes from the Edge by Paul Evans: A book full of unexpected nuggets of information and inspiration: in addition to the travel notes and field observations, Evans (who writes a Guardian country diary from Wenlock Edge, Shropshire) incorporates personal anecdote, folk songs, myths and scientific advances. His central idea is that we have lost our connection with nature due to fear – “ecophobia,” the opposite of which is E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia.” How do we overcome that fear? Mostly by doing just what Evans does: spending time in nature, finding beauty and developing an affinity for particular places and species.
Shiny New Books
The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood: Portmantle is a mysterious artists’ retreat center on a Turkish island. Our narrator, Elspeth Conroy (aka Knell), is a Scottish painter who came to Portmantle in 1962 after some struggles with mental illness. The first third of the novel is tremendously gripping and Gothic. The core of the book, nearly 200 pages, is a flashback to Elspeth’s life before. At last, after what feels like too long a digression, we come full circle back to Portmantle. I didn’t warm to The Ecliptic quite as much as I did to Wood’s debut, The Bellwether Revivals. Still, it’s really interesting to see how he alternates between realism and surrealism here. The parts that feel most real and immediate and the parts that are illusory are difficult to distinguish between. An odd, melancholy, shape-shifting novel.
We Love This Book
Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler: Ten tales of moral complexity in America’s gritty heartland. Fire and recreational drugs are powerful forces linking these Wisconsin-set stories. Opener “The Chainsaw Soirée” sets the tone by describing a failed utopia reminiscent of Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. The stand-out is “Morels,” in which three stoned friends go foraging for mushrooms in their dying rural community. The title’s similarity to “morals” is no coincidence: when the trio are involved in a hit-and-run they have to decide what to stand for. Unsentimental but lyrically composed, these stories will appeal to fans of Ron Rash.
Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpoint: Pierpont’s ambitiously structured debut novel explores how infidelity affects a whole New York City family. In short sections of matter-of-fact statements Pierpont gives a what-happened-next for each of the characters over the next decade or so. But “it’s the between-time that lasted,” Pierpoint argues as she returns to that summer of revelations for a closer look. The climactic events of the holiday contrast childhood innocence and adulthood; when you’re on the cusp, certain experiences can push you over the brink from one to the other. This offbeat take on the dysfunctional family novel should interest fans of Nicole Krauss or Rebecca Dinerstein (The Sunlit Night). [Few extra thoughts at Goodreads.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
F: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann: What does F stand for? Faith, finances, fraud, forgery, family and Fate all play a role in Kehlmann’s fourth novel available in English translation. F is also for the Friedlands: Arthur the unreliable patriarch; Martin, a portly Catholic priest who doesn’t believe in God; and his twin half-brothers, Eric and Ivan, a mentally ill businessman and a homosexual painter who forges his mentor’s masterworks. Reading this brilliant, funny spoof on the traditional family saga is like puzzling out a Rubik’s Cube: it is a multi-faceted narrative with many meanings that only become clear the deeper you go. (Full review in September/October 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)
Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea: I generally love Victorian-set historical fiction and books about famous wives, so I was surprised by how little I liked this novel about Lizzie Burns, the illiterate, working-class Irish woman who was Frederick Engels’ longtime partner. The novel flits between 1870–1, when Lizzie and Frederick were newly arrived in London and involved in helping the poor and Franco-Prussian War refugees, and their earlier years in Manchester. Lizzie is a no-nonsense first-person narrator, and her coarse, questionably grammatical speech fits with her background. Unfortunately, I never warmed to Lizzie or felt that she was giving a truly intimate look at her own life. This novel had such potential to bring an exciting, revolutionary time to life, but it never fulfilled its promise for me. Releases in the States on October 13th.
Rank by Aaron McCollough: Some nice alliteration and pleasant imagery of flora, fauna and musical instruments. However, I struggled to find any overarching meaning in these run-on poems. In fact, I could not tell you what a single one of them is actually about. Story is just as important as sound in poetry, I feel, and in that respect this collection was lacking. Releases September 1st.
Trout’s Lie by Percival Everett: “The line of time / Is past. / The line folds back, / Splits. / Two lines now, future, present. The past / Is a circle of / Abstraction, regret.” There is a lot of repetition and wordplay in these poems. The title piece uses a line in Italian from Dante – translating to “in the middle of our life’s path” – that forms another recurring theme: being stuck between times or between options and having to decide which way to go. These read quickly, with the run-on phrases flowing naturally from topic to topic. I’m not sure this was the best introduction to a prolific author I’d never heard of; I’ll have to look into his other work. Releases October 15th.
Bandersnatch by Erika Morrison: This is Christian self-help, an ideal read for fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and Rob Bell. The title, a creature from Lewis Carroll’s imagination, is Morrison’s shorthand for a troublemaker. She argues that as Christians we should be following Jesus down the road of “positive nonconformity”: taking an avant-garde approach to life, turning ordinary moments into divine opportunities through spiritual alchemy, taking an interest in the least of these with kingdom anthropology, and making the everyday trials of marriage and parenthood our works of art. I liked the book best when Morrison illustrated her points with stories from her own life. Overall I found the book repetitive, and the language can definitely be hippy-dippy in places. Releases October 6th.
Family Values by Wendy Cope: Cope mostly uses recognizable forms (villanelles, sonnets, etc.): this is interesting to see in contemporary poetry, but requires a whole lot of rhyming, most of it rather twee (e.g. “tuppence/comeuppance”), which gives the whole collection the feeling of being written for children. My two favorites were “Lissadell,” about a vacation to Ireland, and “Haiku,” perfect in its simplicity:
A perfect white wine
is sharp, sweet and cold as this:
birdsong in winter.
We often resent books we’re forced to read in school, but The Scarlet Letter wasn’t like that for me. Even though it was assigned reading for high school, I could instantly sense how important it was in the history of American literature. The tragic story of Hester Prynne and her judgmental community is one that stays with me half a lifetime later. I reread it in college for a Hawthorne & Melville course, for which I also read The Blithedale Romance, The House of the Seven Gables, and several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best short stories.
My more-than-average interest in Hawthorne, combined with my love of historical fiction about “famous wives” (see my BookTrib articles on the subject, including one specifically about the Hemingway and Fitzgerald wives) meant that I was eager to read Erika Robuck’s latest. She’s made a name for herself with novels about some of history’s famous women, including Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay and one of the Hemingway wives, but somehow I’ve never read anything by her until now.
“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.”
(one of Robuck’s epigraphs, from Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun)
The novel is from the first-person perspective of Sophia Peabody, later the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Peabodys were an artistic, intellectual family who encouraged Sophia to cultivate her talent as a painter and sculptor, but illness often held her back: she suffered from debilitating headaches and turned to morphine and mesmerism for relief. The story begins and ends in the spring of 1864, when Nathaniel, suffering from a stomach ailment, sets off on a final journey without Sophia. In between these bookends, the novel spans the 1830s through the 1860s, taking in Sophia’s sojourn in Cuba as a young woman, her and Nathaniel’s courtship, and the challenges of parenthood and making a living from art.
My favorite portions of the novel were set in Concord, Massachusetts, that haven for writers and Transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville all play minor roles. It’s especially amusing to see Melville, Hawthorne’s ardent admirer, overstep the boundaries of polite society and become an irksome stalker. What I did not realize from previous biographical reading about the Hawthornes is that they nearly always struggled for money. They rented Emerson’s uncle’s house in Concord but were evicted when they fumbled to make payments. Nathaniel’s jobs in the Custom House and as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool (appointed by President Franklin Pierce, who was a personal friend and whose biography he wrote) were undertaken out of financial desperation rather than interest.
The Hawthornes’ time in Europe was another highlight of the novel for me. They encounter the Brownings and finally get a chance to see all the Italian art that has inspired Sophia over the years. Their oldest daughter, Una, also falls ill with malaria, which provides some great dramatic scenes in later chapters. I warmed to this late vision of Sophia as a devoted mother, whereas I struggled to accept her as a vibrant young woman and a randy wife. Her constant complaints about headaches are annoying, and I wasn’t convinced that the Cuba chapters were relevant to the novel as a whole; Robuck tries to link Sophia’s observations of slavery there with the abolitionist sentiments of the 1860s, but Sophia’s devotion to the antislavery cause was only ever half-hearted, so I didn’t believe the experience in Cuba could have affected her that deeply. Her unconsummated lust for Fernando is also, I suppose, meant to prefigure her abiding passion for Nathaniel – which is described in frequent, cringe-worthy sex scenes and flowery lines like “In his gaze, I feel our souls rise up to meet each other.”
Ultimately, my disconnection from Sophia as narrator meant that I would prefer to read about the Hawthornes in biographies, of which there are plenty. Two novels I would recommend that incorporate many of the same historical figures are Miss Fuller by April Bernard and What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins (about the deaf-blind Laura Bridgman – who has a tiny cameo here). Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo uses a Cuba setting to better effect in telling the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s last holiday. I preferred all three of these to The House of Hawthorne. However, I’m certainly up for trying more of Robuck’s fiction.
I received early access to this book through the Penguin First to Read program.
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a short taster and a rating (below) so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer [BookBrowse is a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free on the website]: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past.
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein: A debut novel as charming as it is quirky. Two young adults from Brooklyn meet in the far north of Norway, where one is an artist’s apprentice and the other is burying a beloved father. Bittersweet family backstories and burgeoning romance make this a winner.
Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life by Michael Pronko (& interview): The pleasant and diverse travel essays in this collection draw on Pronko’s 15 years living in Japan. A long-term resident but still an outsider, he is perfectly placed to notice the many odd and wonderful aspects of Tokyo life.
The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell: Red Széll started losing his sight at age 19. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, off the Orkney Islands. An inspirational rock-climbing adventure.
Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and focusing on Virginia Woolf’s marriage and later career, this is a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside. For the depth of its literary reference and psychological insight, this is my favorite novel of 2015 so far.
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss: This wide-ranging work of nonfiction explores the facts, myths and metaphors of vaccination. Biss powerfully captures the modern phenomenon of feeling simultaneously responsible and powerless.
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes: An aspiring mime buys a London canal boat and finds her father in this debut novel. Fellowes writes good descriptive passages and handles past and present capably. However, I was unsure whether Chaplin and Company overall has much narrative verve. What I will take away is an offbeat, bittersweet coming-of-age story.
Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy: An updated version of The Great Gatsby set amongst contemporary London’s über-rich Russians. The novel is wise about the implications of class and immigration. However, as a whole it doesn’t work as well as some updated classics, such as The Innocents (Francesca Segal). In a sense, Goldsworthy’s literary debt is too obvious.
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more personal musings and an overview of the book’s content]: David Lodge, one of Britain’s most celebrated comic novelists, surveys 40 years of personal and social change.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin: The author of The Happiness Project returns with a thorough guide to making and breaking habits, offering different strategies for different personality types.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: A very funny epistolary novel in the form of letters of recommendation written by a grouchy English professor. English graduates and teachers in particular will get a kick out of this, but I daresay anyone who has ever been fed up with bureaucracy at work will sympathize with Fitger.
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Time by Barbara Taylor: Taylor was once a mental patient at Friern Hospital. This is an arresting vision of madness from the inside, as well as a history of England’s asylum system.
We Love This Book
It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario: Photojournalist Lynsey Addario remembers a decade on the frontline of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and strives for balance in her work and personal life. Journalists face real danger every day. It’s all here: bombs, car accidents, dehydration, beatings, and sexual assault. Yet all the risks over the years have been worth it “to convey beauty in war.”
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: Essbaum’s arresting debut novel reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate housewife in Zurich. As deplorable as Anna’s actions may be, she is an entirely sympathetic tragic heroine. Watch her trajectory with horror but you cannot deny there is a little of Anna in you.
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday: the suspenseful finale to “The Last Wild,” a fantasy trilogy for younger readers. The environmentalist message is not subtle but it is powerful and should inspire older children. Blending hints of Pullman and Tolkien with up-to-the-minute dystopian themes, this is an inventive take on the classic quest narrative.
The Time in Between: A Memoir of Hunger and Hope by Nancy Tucker: Nancy Tucker suffered from anorexia and bulimia for nearly a decade. Written in an original blend of styles, her eating disorder memoir is wrenching but utterly absorbing. You won’t find epiphanies or happy endings here, just a messy, ongoing recovery process – but 21-year-old Tucker narrates it exquisitely.
Quadrapheme literary magazine
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more of an essay about the context and sociological themes]: Even readers less familiar with Lodge’s work may be interested in the book’s insights into the social changes of post-war Britain. Lodge has not had a conventionally exciting life, and he knows it. From the title onward, his focus is more on his time period than his own uniqueness. He appears as an Everyman who superseded his working-class origins and expectations through hard work and luck.
Shiny New Books
Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan: Not just another bibliomemoir. A better balance could have been struck between recycled blog content and academic musings on postcolonial literature and censorship. An interest in the politics of literature in translation would be a boon to anyone attempting this.
Foreword Reviews (self-published titles)
The Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana: In this carefully plotted novel, a young Native American finds self-assurance and explores her sexuality by trying on the clothing – and personae – of Hollywood actresses. Spirited characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable read for classic film lovers.
Silence by Deborah Lytton: Lytton’s second novel for young adults concerns the unlikely match between a Broadway-bound singer who experiences temporary deafness after an accident and a pianist with a speech impediment and a traumatic past. It is a touching story about the forces that so often threaten us into silence and the struggle to find a voice anyway.
Woody Allen: Reel to Real by Alex Sheremet: Woody Allen fans will prize this comprehensive, readable rundown of his oeuvre. This is an exhaustive study, ideal for established Allen enthusiasts and film students rather than the average moviegoer looking for an introduction.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading on Goodreads.
The Mermaid’s Child by Jo Baker: This was Baker’s second novel, originally published in 2004. It doesn’t nearly live up to Longbourn, but it’s a fairly intriguing blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Malin’s father was a ferryman; her absent mother, so he swears, was a mermaid. Curiously timeless and placeless.
The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg: This historical novel about George Sand is a real slow burner. Berg makes the mistake of trying to be too comprehensive about Sand’s life; it would be better to just choose illustrative vignettes or representative love affairs (e.g. with Chopin) rather than include them all. There are two different timelines, 1831–1876 and 1804–1831, but together they’re still just a chronological slog.
The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: There’s some gentle magic realism to this mother-daughter memoir. In the difficult year that forms the kernel of the memoir, Cohen’s younger daughter, Eliana, had a leg-lengthening surgery; her adopted older daughter, Julia, met her birth mother, Zoe; and Cohen herself underwent a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer. During radiation sessions, when she had to lie face-down, perfectly still, for 10 minutes at a time, her mother – dead for 20 years – would appear and talk to her.
A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson: A wholly engaging tour through everything we know and are still trying to learn about bumblebees. I saw Goulson, founder of the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust, speak at a nature conference in November and found him to be just as enthusiastic and well-informed in person. His occasional anthropomorphisms are unfailingly endearing.
Black River by S.M. Hulse: Back in the town of Black River, Montana after his wife’s agonizing death, Wesley Carver must face the trauma he experienced as a prison guard when he was held hostage and tortured during an inmate riot. Now his attacker is up for parole, and Wes plans to attend the hearing and discourage the jury. At first you might think you’re reading a revenge story, but this is something subtler and sweeter than that. (What a shame that Hulse had to go by her initials, rather than Sarah, to be taken seriously in this genre, even though she’s on a level with Philipp Meyer.)
Trumbull Ave. by Michael Lauchlan: I didn’t like this quite as much as the other Made in Michigan books I’ve read, but Lauchlan does a good job of contrasting pastoral and post-industrial views of Detroit through free verse, as in “Detroit Pheasant,” the poem that gives the collection its cover image.
What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other by Jeffrey Schultz: I enjoyed these poems set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. They’re full of black humor, sarcasm and realistically pessimistic views of the American future. They’re very densely structured, usually in complete sentences of free verse.