Review: Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones

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Another beautiful installment of Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia series, which  introduces us to composer Luzie Valorin and Serafina Talarico, a vidator who is blessed with the power to see fluctus but not invoke it. Serafina appeared briefly towards the end of the second book The Mystic Marriage, but here her story is taken up in full. Born in Italy to Ethiopian parents, she escapes a loveless marriage to pursue her study of thaumaturgy, lodging with Luzie, a widow and musician who struggles to make ends meet following the death of her husband.

All the other major characters from the previous books are also given their own stories and the book emerges as a complex weave of narratives, each subtly related but distinct in the way they represent different aspects of Alpennian life. And while the book doesn’t draw all the individual strands of the story to their conclusions, the ending is really satisfying and leaves you hankering for more. Having said that, I did feel that as more characters are thrown into the ensemble, there’s not always enough focus on each one. I feel the author might have gone for broke and even doubled the length of the book to deliver more insight into the lives and relationships of these characters who never fail to fascinate.

That, however, is just a grumble which proves how much I love this series. It’s expertly penned, the prose style is tense and concise, it’s convincing in terms of characterisation and you just find yourself completely absorbed by the whole idea of Alpennia and its mysterious inhabitants. Can’t wait for more.

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Review – A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

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It takes nerves of steel to write a novel on the French Revolution. I can’t even begin to imagine how you’d approach such a project given the complex, ambiguous weave of personal and political motivations and relationships which contributed to this watershed in European history. On the other hand, it is an irresistibly dramatic subject: the  notion of an ideal which rots even as it takes root. And the very fact that the “reign of terror” was ultimately birthed by staid, middle class, respectable lawyers somehow prefigures the cold calculations of the Nazi death machine – the Nazis, it should be added, employed the guillotine during the second world war.

Hilary Mantel’s narrative is a dizzying, polyphonic masterpiece. Rather than isolating a single character and their perspective – as she does in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy – we hear from many characters caught up in this political maelstrom, their voices rising and fading in succession, sometimes blurring into each other. While the story pivots around the relationship between Desmouslins, Dantons and Robespierre, we encounter their wives and lovers, their families, business associates and relations, aristocrats, Jacobins and Girondistes. And the text itself has an almost collage-type structure, laced with reports from newspapers and pamphlets, the prose sometimes slipping into pure dramatic dialogue. It’s a chaotic, mind-bendingly complex narrative which sometimes seems to teeter on the brink of losing its form, but Mantel keeps it all together with virtuoso skill.

The narrative is punctured by a robust wit and an eye for irony which somehow deflates our notion of these men and women as icons or emblems – and allows the reader to encounter them on a very human level. Robespierre’s belief in his own value to the revolutionary project, for example, contributes to his failure to save his childhood friend Desmoulins from the guillotine, while Danton – orator and man of the people – is revealed to be permanently on the take, determined to make his fortune and get out of the revolution while the going’s good. Ultimately, of course, it is the revolution which devours him before he can make good his escape.

What I also really appreciated about the book is how many women’s voices we hear, whether it’s the frustration of female politicians such as Anne Theroigne and Madame Roland, straining against the misogyny of male revolutionaries, or wives and lovers – Lucile Desmoulins, Louise Gély and Eleanor Duplay. So often in narratives of the revolution, these are the voices which get suppressed and it becomes male-oriented. The historical role of women has gone unacknowledged, but Mantel brings their voices to the fore, emphasising their insecurities, their own private tragedies and their political influence.

This is a novel which drops you headfirst into Paris at the end of the eighteenth century without too much of a lifeline. But if you’re prepared to take on the challenge, it’s a book which absorbs and fascinates, which prompts you to research as you’re reading, and offers a sustained and intense insight into the minds behind one of the most frightening episodes in European history. Worth not one read, but many.

Review – The Miniaturist – by Jessie Burton

Well its been a while since I was last able to get some reviews out, as I’ve been involved in various projects which have proved quite time consuming. But finally, summer is here and I hope to be posting regularly again!

So here’s a review of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.

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It’s something of a truism to point out that historical fiction has been reappraised as a genre in recent years, with authors like Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters commanding the respect of critics and readers alike. What makes the new wave of historical fiction so special is the way it interrogates our relationship with the past. Rather than feeding us romantic, heroic, Walter Scott style narratives, contemporary authors look at history side on, inviting us to consider the minor narratives which are so often ignored or even annihilated by conventional readings of history. In particular, this includes a focus on the secret, the hidden and the repressed – on the way in which issues such as gender, sexuality and race interact with a general preconception of European/Western history as white, masculine and straight.

In this respect, Jessie Burton’s exquisite novel The Miniaturist is no exception. It is a story which the reader somehow unpeels or unwraps, each layer shedding yet more secrets. The literary equivalent of a Rembrandt or Vermeer, it is to the shadowy areas of Burton’s “canvas” that our eyes are drawn. What is it that the light is hiding? What ironies or subversions are hinted at?

It is 1686, and child bride Petronella Oortman marries into the Brandt household, her husband Johannes a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. Petronella (Nella) also encounters Johannes’ enigmatic sister Marin, whose piety and self-repression soon emerge as camouflage, enabling her to act out the role of a devout Protestant spinster. Bored and lonely, Nella sets about furnishing her dolls house – a wedding gift from Johannes – receiving parcels containing dolls and scaled down furniture from the mysterious Miniaturist. As the story unfolds, it seems that the Miniaturist has an uncanny knack of predicting – or possibly even controlling – the lives of the real house’s inhabitants.

The Miniaturist reveals how, even in  the most repressive of environments, space can be found for autonomy and self-awareness. The Miniaturist’s first message to Nella insists that she can challenge those conventions which restrict her as a woman and as a wife: “Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.” As readers, we might anticipate Nella’s emergence as that stock character in historical fiction: a romantic figure who finds release through love. Instead, this is a journey into independence and freedom. As the world about her starts to disintegrate, she becomes stronger, increasingly resilient and resourceful. In short, she becomes herself.

Just a joy to read. Perfectly paced, The Minaturist yields its secrets one by one, couched in a sinuous, lyrical prose. A beautiful book.

Review – The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry’s latest novel proves to be as elusive a beast as the Essex Serpent itself: a story which coaxes the reader into a literary terrain every bit as shifting and unstable as the salt marshes amongst which it is set.

Following the death of her abusive husband, Cora Seaborne sets about reinventing herself – stretching her wings and re-evaluating her relationship with her friends, and with society in general.  Freeing herself from the disapproving gaze of Victorian London, Cora moves to Essex in the hope of scouring the local beaches for fossils. Intrigued by the possibility that a “living fossil” may have been sighted near the village of Aldwinter, with local sightings of a winged sea beast reported, she moves there with her friend Martha and autistic son Frankie.

In truth, if there is any geology to be had in this novel, it is of the personal sort – the gradual chipping away at layers of emotional sediment to discover the uncomfortable truths which Cora – and many of her friends – keep deeply buried. On encountering local Vicar Will Ransome, Cora dredges her own sense of self to make sense of her feelings for him, while Will finds himself torn between the superstitions of his congregation and the foundations of his own religious belief. This is a story which explores the porous boundaries between pleasure and pain, between faith and superstition and between love and hate. Imbued with all the rich ambiguity of a Turner painting, it throws an alternative view of the Victorian age into relief – one in which sexual desire and sexuality lurk just beneath the surface of public consciousness, and are easily implied if not expressed.

Comparisons have been drawn between Perry’s sublime work of Victorian pastiche and Bram Stoker/Dickens. I didn’t quite feel that myself – it doesn’t really function as gothic, or as social commentary – at least not directly. I did, however, find myself thinking about Hardy as I read it: of his pivotal themes of sin and redemption, and of his exposure of the hypocrisies of nineteenth century British society. But what I really find most valuable here, is the uniqueness of Perry’s writing, and the way she gives a voice to characters whose stories are repressed or never heard at all in Victorian literature. A book which very definitely deserves to be re-read.