Category Archives: historical

UNDER A POLESTAR by Stef Penney

It’s 1948 and Flora Mackie is on an airplane heading for the Arctic Circle. She’s seated next to a young and irritating journalist, who insists on asking Flora all sorts of questions, when all she wants to do is remember….

This is an epic adventure and love story, with a mystery at its heart. From Flora’s first expedition aboard her father’s whaling ship in 1889, she falls head over heels with the ice, snow and people of northern Greenland, forging friendships that will last a lifetime and which are repeatedly rekindled when she heads up her own scientific expeditions to the Arctic as an adult. Flora breaks ground time and again, as a woman and as an explorer, railing against her male rivals and the media that have dubbed her ‘Snow Queen’. But she is limited in what she can do alone and all too often has to rely on men to help her fulfill her dreams. Flora’s passion for the North is matched only by her passion for Jakob de Beyn, an American, with whom she crosses paths when he’s a geologist on an expedition led by the ruthless Lester Armitage. There’s an inevitability about the doomed relationship between these star crossed lovers that’s only in part down to the reflective structure of Penney’s narrative, but it doesn’t detract from the intensity of their connection – or the heat they make to keep out all that cold.  The erotic heart of the novel burns deeply and is all the more powerful for being set in a context that’s interesting in its own right, as well as unpredicatble. For example, Armitage’s lies, recklessness and treatment of the Inuit in particular cast a new and less than flattering light on the brave explorers mythology that persists, even today.

Penney writes in exquisite detail of the discoveries made in the region at the time, of Flora and Jakob’s exploration of one another’s bodies, and the emotional landscapes they traverse as they conquer the inhospitable glaciers and frozen seas of the North. The ice is smelled as well as felt, heard and tasted. She’s created too in Flora in particular a beguiling and eminently likeable and admirable central character, and in common with Jakob, one who is the very definition of principled and good without being dull or smug. Penney also manages to craft a narrative that moves around in time and is at times timeless, and to do so with a clarity and mostly leisurely momentum that’s somehow difficult to resist.  Every bit as good as THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, UNDER A POLE STAR is a beautiful story with a dark edge, beautifully told.

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BIRDCAGE WALK by Helen Dunmore

John Diner Tredevant  is a brooding and ambitious property developer, who claims his first wife died whilst visiting her native France. He’s now married to Lizzie Fawkes and together they live in Bristol, in the home Diner has built, overlooking the abyss that is Clifton gorge. Lizzie, who was brought up moving from one rather less grand set of rented rooms to another with her mother, Julia, a political writer, feels most at home when in the kitchen of her marital home, with the servant girl, Philo.  She remains close to her mother, both geographically and emotionally,  even if she finds her step father, Augustus, rather pompous and silly at times, and loves visiting the household, which revolves around Julia’s creative impulses, ably facilitated by Hannah, who has served Julia ever since Lizzie was a child, and the couple’s advocacy of women’s rights and republicanism. The bold idealism August and Julia represent is utterly at odds with Diner’s capitalism and Lizzie struggles at times to accommodate the two, torn between strong ties to her past and the ever more controlling, distrustful behaviour of the husband to whom she is passionately and jealously drawn.

The backdrop to these relationships is the French Revolution, unfolding in gory detail through letters sent to Julia and Augustus by political friends caught up in events on the street, and whose economic consequences are soon felt keenly by Diner, desperate to sell the other houses he is building and into which he has ploughed so much. Less significant but equally keenly felt by our protagonists are the revolutions unleashed by the news that Julia has fallen pregnant at the age of 40 and by the arrival of an unannounced visitor from France, asking questions about Diner’s first wife. As Lizzie’s life gets more and more entwined with that of her mother’s household, she feels ever more distant from Diner, whilst his unpredictability and anger grow with every passing day that brings new reports of bloodshed and turmoil over the Channel.

Menace and mystery pulse from the pages of BIRDCAGE WALK and Dunmore’s story telling skills are in fine form. In Diner and Julia in particular, she has created complex characters that are equal to the drama, desolation and danger of the plot they inhabit – one which is full of drama, desolation and danger. I tend to avoid overtly historical fiction though I always enjoy how Dunmore’s novels are committed to revealing the role played by usually forgotten people – and usually women – in defining the past. As she writes in her Afterword, “The question of what is left behind by a life, haunts the novel”. That’s certainly true and, whilst not as brilliant as A SPELL OF WINTER, for example, BIRDCAGE WALK is, nonetheless, a fantastic read and highly recommended.

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LA BELLE SAUVAGE by Philip Pullman

I have had a handful of encounters with Philip Pullman through work, most recently in the run up to this year’s general election, when I called his house and his wife told me he wasn’t able to speak to anyone. He was busy writing. I have no idea whether he was working on LA BELLE SAUVAGE but I like to think he was, or perhaps on its sequel, and of him retreating from the madness of early summer in Oxford in 2017 to the wildness of the Oxford he created in HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and which is revisited here.

LA BELLE SAUVAGE goes back to one beginning, to the days when Lyra from the trilogy, is a baby. It explores the political and scientific forces trying to control her life and shape both her destiny and the world around them. Familiar characters such as Mrs Coulter and Coram the Gyptian, rub shoulders with wonderful new creations, including Malcolm and Alice, an unlikely duo who team up to protect baby Lyra as a flood of biblical proportions sweeps through Oxford and its famed colleges.  And of course, the daemons are back too, from Panatalaimon to a whole new cast including a very disturbed and damaged hyena.

Pullman draws on and is inspired by a wealth of stories, myths, ideas and legends. He does so with confidence and imagination. What is essentially a simple narrative about a baby being chased down, becomes the most glorious, captivating, magical tale in his hands. Just as good as the originals and I profoundly hope that if I were to call his house again, Pullman is working hard on the next installment. I cannot wait.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

This came highly recommended by a friend and also courtesy of various literary award panels. Two stories run in parallel throughout – that of Marie-Laure, a young blind French girl, enthralled by the lives of snails and molluscs, growing up under Nazi occupation and that of Werner, a young German orphan and radio obsessive who can fix pretty much anything and is desperate to escape the mines and the same inevitable death underground that befell his father. The stories weave between their early childhoods and the novel’s present day, where St Malo, home to Marie-Laure and her great uncle Etienne, is being subjected to relentless aerial bombardment by the US Airforce. Etienne is part of the resistance and his radio transmissions have attracted the attention of Werner’s superiors, so the German teenager has been sent to track down their source. Also in town is Reinhold Von Rumpel, in hot pursuit of a legendary and cursed diamond called the Sea of Flame, with which Marie-Laure’s father was entrusted when the war broke out, by the head of the natural history museum where he worked as a locksmith.

Doerr is a great story teller and there’s much I loved about this book. He has created two captivating main characters and a support cast that’s equally interesting. He convincingly brings to life the weight of sadness, the simultaneous futility and opportunity of war, the persistent nature of goodness and of greed. The entwined themes of light, seeing and vision seem to emerge very naturally and, thanks to Doerr’s elegant prose, are readily sustained. And, very important this, there’s a deliberate and very satisfying tying up of loose ends as the book draws to an end.

Yet for some reason I found myself bored reading it. Bored by the pace and the time it took for Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths to cross (an event which in itself was fleeting), by the bloated descriptions of her encounters with nature and his with science, and in particular by the Sea of Flame narrative and Von Rumpel’s emotional landscape.  I was reading it on my kindle so I have no idea how big a book it is but it felt too long – and that’s from someone who loves being immersed in very big books.

There’s no doubt about Doerr’s ambition and talent, and who am I to say he’s not deserving of the many prizes ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE has won. But ultimately, I didn’t manage to really connect with it and nor did I find the light others have come across in its pages. Perhaps it simply just wasn’t right for me at the time of reading. Or perhaps the darkness leaves me needing books where the light is more blinding than subtle.

 

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HOW TO STOP TIME by Matt Haig

This book reminded me enormously of John Boyne’s THE THIEF OF TIME because the main protagonist is a man who does not age. In this instance, Tom Hazard, born in 1581 has worked for Shakespeare, dined at the next table from Charlie Chaplin, witnessed his mother being drowned for witchcraft, sailed with Captain Cook, and drunk cocktails with F Scott Fitzgerald. Yet he can still pass himself off as 40 odd years old when he applies to teach history in a London comprehensive, a stone’s throw from where he lived with his one true love Rose, victim of the Great Plague.

HOW TO STOP TIME is, on one level, the story of Tom’s quest to find the child he had with Rose – a daughter named Marion who inherited her father’s condition and from whom he was separated when Tom was forced to flee is family to keep them safe from superstitions of the day. This quest has seen him become indebted to 900 year old Hendrich, who heads up a society dedicated to tracking down other “albas” or albatrosses and keeping them safe from discovery from the mere mortals known as “mayflies” that die after around 70 years. Hendrich promises Tom he is making full use of all the society’s extensive resources to hunt for Marion too and in return expects Tom to help him draw the other albas that surface into the society. Motivated by a paranoid fear of becoming the victim of a biotech company science experiment, Hendrich makes all the albas in the society start their lives over every eight years to avoid detection. One of the tasks he entrusts to Tom is reeling in newly discovered albas – or killing them if they refuse to cooperate and therefore risk putting the other members of the society in jeopardy. When Tom is sent to Australia to enlist Pacific Islander Omai, who he has not seen for hundreds of years, he finds his old friend has a different take on longevity and life’s purpose, putting them both on a collision course with the increasingly unhinged and obsessive Hendrich.

On another level this is a beautiful love story. Tom’s loyalty to Rose is sweetly conveyed and evocative of a time when love seemed so much purer and simpler. His return to London is a pilgrimage to his memory of Rose and yet, for the first time since she died, Tom meets someone else there to whom he is attracted – Camille, a fellow teacher at the school where he ends up working. Torn between Rose’s memory and a desire to experience the present again rather than just mark time, Tom starts to struggle with the logic which has governed his life for so long, making him cautious about not forming ties for example. He soon finds himself unable to overcome the pull Camille is exerting, throwing caution to the wind and opening up to her about his secret.

On yet another level, HOW TO STOP TIME is a commentary on our relationship with the past. It dwells on the way we repeat the mistakes of the past – “we had done what so often happened in the proud history of geographic discovery. We had found paradise. And then we had set it on fire.” Haig ponder humankind’s apparent ability for endless self destruction. It’s full of comparisons between events now and those in history – “Superstition is back. Lies are back. With hunts are back”. He takes every opportunity to send up the  present – “No one I knew in the 1600s wanted to find their inner billionaire. They just wanted to live to see adolescence and avoid body lice.” And despite lines like this he mostly romanticises the past,  successfully getting away with it and helped by the fact he’s subtly avoided this being a historic novel that requires accuracy and instead the history is just part of the clever conceit he has created. This is a writer supremely confident with his subject matter and he never labours these big underlying themes.

What I loved most about HOW TO STOP TIME though, was how it works as a reflection on what it means to live – and how difficult it is to simply inhabit the present moment, no matter whether that moment is in 1581 or 2017. Rather than relishing his virtual immortality, Tom is weary of life and only keeps going because of his desire to find Marion, and in doing so himself. He struggles throughout to be actually here in the now, to stop the ghosts of other nows from getting in. Meeting Omai again opens Tom’s eyes to how this might be possible, as does falling for Camille. He learns that happiness is not about living an ordinary mayfly life, but about finding the point of living the life you have. That even when love is dangerous it’s the whole point. And that “In those moments that burst alive the present lasts for ever” because “the only way to stop time is to stop being ruled by it.”

I wanted to live in this book forever.

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THE TOBACCONIST by Robert Seethaler

Set in Austria in 1937, this is the story of Franz, who leaves the idyllic lakeside home of his childhood to work as an apprentice for a Viennese tobacconist. He falls in love, makes friends with the customers, including Sigmund Freud, and navigates the moral dilemmas of a city apparently in thrall to Nazism.

THE TOBACCONIST is a beautifully written, understated book and yet I just couldn’t connect with it. Nothing about Franz or what happens to him sparked any emotion in me, and even the menace of the secret police and persecution of Vienna’s Jewish citizens failed to feel anything more than historical facts.  Really disappointing and I was hoping for much more given the rave reviews the book has received.

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THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE by John Boyne

As a child, I was fascinated by the story of the Romanov family, and especially the mystery of whether Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, survived the firing squad that executed her parents and siblings. This book reminded me that, as an adult, I remain just as susceptible to the same fairy tale like intrigue that used to captivate me.

As with so many of Boyne’s novels, THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE takes historical events as the framework for a fictional account, in this instance of a love affair between Anastasia and Georgy, one of her father’s soldiers, plucked out of Kashin, “a dark, miserable, fetid, unhealthy, squalid, depressing wreck of a village” and transported to the Royal household. On his first night there he catches the eye of a young girl in the street, only later to learn who she is. The two begin a clandestine relationship and, when the family are taken to Ekaterinburg following the Tsar’s abdication, Georgy pursues his true love.

THE HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE moves between the present day, where Georgy has recently retired as a librarian at the British Library in London and is caring for his wife Zoya, dying of cancer, and his ever more distant memories – of Anastasia, of the aftermath of the political turmoil that wracked his homeland and the events that forced him to flee Russia. Despite Boyne being hugely sympathetic to the Romanov family and barely paying lip service to the misery and hardship for which they were responsible, he has written a moving and enduring story. One that takes in much of the 20th century and much of the human condition, from love to loneliness. In fact I defy anyone not to get caught up in the romance and sadness of the tale he has spun. It’s pure escapism and a joy to read.

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