Category Archives: historical

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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HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing by yaa gyasi

I picked this up because it’s set in Ghana and my ex spent a year working there recently so I was interested in learning a little about the country’s relatively recent history. As expected it was painful, scarred with exploitation and full of suffering.

Gyasi starts in an Asante village in the 18th century with two half sisters, Efia and Esi. Effia, abandoned by her mother in the bush at birth is sold by her father to James, a British slave trader, to be his wife, and the couple live at cape Coast Castle. Esi, the valuable daughter of an important chief, is seized by local boys working for the slave traders during a raid on her village and also ends up at the castle – in the dungeons, where she’s held until she can be sold and transported to the Americas. HOMEGOING then uses a series of interconnecting stories that picks up and traces each woman’s family over the ensuing years, finishing at the turn of the 21st century.

The individual stories are powerful in and of themselves, so much so that each time one finished to move on to the next I was disappointed to leave them behind, then soon captivated anew by the next. And the stories combine together to make an incredibly rich, moving and well researched whole.

Each of Effia’s descendants inherits a stone that she was given by her mother and that tangibly connects them with family and history. Esi was given a similar stone but lost it in the filth and squalor of the West African dungeons. Nonetheless she too carries the weight of her past and it is passed to her children, and their children and so on. The stories that make up HOMEGOING aren’t just linked by Esi and Effia, they are bound too by the thread of slavery and how its impact continues to resonate, generation after generation. This thread, inevitably, becomes a little looser as we move through time, but whilst on many levels HOMEGOING is about the redemptive nature of love, it also leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever that nothing can heal the scars Effia and Esi and their descendants continue to bear.

It’s the compelling and credible characters that really make this book, that give it both dark and light, even if at times the historical span means they have to embody a particular stereotype too restrictively – whether that’s the Harlem jazz musician or the missionary scholar. There’s Quey, James and Effia’s mixed race son, who refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps as a slave trader. Then there’s Esi’s child, Ness, born on a plantation in the American South,  who with husband, Sam, later flees the captivity and slavery they’ve known all their lives in one of the most heart wrenching sections of the novel. Decades later there’s Marcus and Marjorie, who meet in the US, unaware that their ancestors were half sisters and who travel together to Ghana.

Marcus is involved in a research project there and as the pair wander on the beach, he yearns to tell Marjorie how overwhelmed he feels with wanting his work to capture “the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it.”  Any flaws in HOMEGOING seem to arise from the fact that Gyasi’s task is just as enormous, especially when her subject matter throbs with such importance. Yet rather than get lost in this vastness of scale, it looks for roots and finds them in the lives of individuals – and it’s that combination which I think makes the novel such an incredible success and HOMEGOING a book I am sure I will read again and again.

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THE LANTERN by Deborah Lawrenson

the lantern by deborah lawrenson

There’s something very captivating about this sensual, mysterious novel. It evokes its Provencal setting through some gorgeous (if at times over wrought) language that appealed to all my senses, and the way it moves between past and present is seamless and bewitching. Yet overall I felt a bit irritated reading THE LANTERN and in large part I suspect that was because it crossed over every so often into the supernatural. Now I love a bit of supernatural or magic or fantasy in a book. I love a lot of it too, as evidenced by my reading the Harry Potter series about once a year. But these things have their place and, although I have no hard and fast rules, I don’t much like it when ghosts, spells, visitors from other planets or whatever arrive unannounced in a book that I am expecting to be the kind of book where such things do not occur. As it turns out, there are rational explanations for all the supernatural events that take place but none of that is revealed until very close to the end and, by that time,  I am afraid the damage had been done.

At the heart of THE LANTERN is a house called Les Genevriers that has been home to immense happiness and terrible heartbreak. When Eve and Dom, in the midst of a whirlwind romance, buy the house and start the long process of rescuing it from neglect they stir up all sorts of secrets about the previous inhabitants. The random objects Dom and Eve find in the overgrown garden and wonder over are precious memories to Benedicte Lincel, who grew up at Les Genevriers at the time of the Second World War and who is struggling to let go of the past. The house and the events that take place there link Eve and Dom’s story with Benedicte’s, until eventually the two collide with the shocking discovery of a body in the grounds of Les Genevriers.

The slightly oppressive nature of Les Genevriers once the summer has passed, feeds suspicions that Eve has been harbouring about Dom, and these feelings are heightened by his repeated disappearances, news reports of missing local teenage girls, and her lover’s brooding, uncommunicative nature. As she tries to find out the story behind Dom’s break up with his wife, Eve becomes more and more unsure about the man she has followed to the South of France. A friendship with a local French woman who knew Dom’s wife prompts even more questions and when Eve discovers that his ex had been researching the history of former owners of Le Genevriers, the house starts to feel more like a prison that a retreat.

Benedicte’s older sister, Marthe, lost her sight as a young girl and as an adult was a world renowned parfumier. Like many of his generation, their brother Pierre decided that his future lay in getting rich as a factory worker rather than the back breaking work of rural life. Benedicte is the one who stayed at home, caring for her ageing mother and trying to keep Le Genevrier in one piece. When handsome Andre turns up one evening looking for board in return for work, Benedicte starts to feel she may have a future ahead of her and the two soon fall in love. But like everyone in this story, Andre has dark secrets and Benedicte’s heart gets broken – first by him, then by her sister, and finally by her prodigal, bitter and violent brother.

I definitely found Benedicte’s the most moving of the two narratives that make up the book – she’s a far stronger and interesting character than modern day Eve who is a bit too self obsessed and drippy for my liking. But it takes a while before her story really gets going and that also added to my frustration with THE LANTERN, as did the obvious but ultimately undeserved comparisons with Daphne DuMaurier’s REBECCA- a far superior book. There’s no doubt Lawrenson can write and the story is well plotted and richly told. She develops some interesting themes, most notably around blindness and passivity. So it’s a shame that I just didn’t get along with THE LANTERN as well as I might. If you do not have the same prejudices, you may well enjoy it – and at least you are forewarned.

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THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue

the-wonder-by-emma-donoghue

I loved Donoghue’s last novel, ROOM, but wasn’t sure I’d like this as much because its setting is historical – 19th century Ireland to be precise. In fact it’s almost as good and her story telling abilities drew me in from the offset.

The plot is quite simple: Lib, a Nightingale nurse trained in the Crimea, is contracted to watch over eleven year old, Anna, who appears to have survived 4 months of self imposed fasting with no ill effects. The local community think Anna is a holy miracle in their midst, and a committee made up of the local priest, doctor, publican and baronet want independent verification that all is as it seems, not least so they might fully benefit from her potential as a religious tourist attraction. Lib is joined in her task by a local nun and the pair take turns to watch over Anna, monitor her condition and observe whether she is indeed faith personified or in fact a fraud.

Lib is convinced Anna is getting food from somewhere and that she will find her out immediately. So when her thorough searches of the family’s most basic of homes reveals no evidence the girl is eg sneaking into the kitchen at night, she turns her attention elsewhere and variously suspects the doctor, the priest, her nursing colleague the nun and both parents. Hitting related brick walls it’s only as Anna’s condition deteriorates rapidly severely, that Lib is forced to change tack. In doing so she confronts the difficult truth that it is her own presence making Anna sick – that the very act of being observed has changed the subject of the investigation. Buoyed by the words of a passionate journalist she meets at her lodgings, and her growing attachment to the young girl, Lib determines that the matter of miracles must take a backseat to persuading Anna to eat to stay alive. To do that she must better understand why Anna stopped in the first place and that discovery makes Lib wonder whether the girl will ever be safe.

One of the most striking things about WONDER is Lib’s scorn for Ireland and everyone she meets there. She rails at the poverty, ignorance, superstitions and religious fervour. And her fury at the damp and the peat smoke that permeate everything is palpable. Lib stands for progress, for science, yet this is sorely tested as the story unfolds, and she finds herself having to draw on aspects of  the very same faith and folklore she despises in order to save Anna from the inevitable consequences of starvation.

The other most striking thing is the same sense of claustrophobia and oppression that marked out ROOM. But Lib isn’t really in a contained physical space – just one of her own making – and one of the downsides of this novel is that she has the freedom to act sooner and more actively challenge what is so obviously going on, so her refusal to do so is both frustrating and calls her moral superiority into question. We know her reaction to Anna is complicated by a backstory that contains loss and grief, but that doesn’t quite excuse her failure to see what’s staring her in the face, or the way her assumptions about Ireland lead her to wrongly assume all sorts of things about the situation in which she finds herself. Donoghue has given as a flawed protagonist and that’s OK, but she’s also given us one who doesn’t quite measure up to her own self or experiences and that’s less forgivable. Nonetheless, this is a good book, with strong, interesting characters and a compelling narrative – definitely worth the read.

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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