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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Harris’

A couple weeks ago I noted on Facebook that I was temporarily abandoning the palace intrigue of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for Robert Harris’ new novel Munich (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). There I was met on the first page with this: “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful. . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hands on the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

It’s September of 1938, and Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. We know that he was dissuaded by British PM Neville Chamberlain at a last-minute meeting in Munich calling “for peace in our time.” Although this policy of appeasement didn’t sit well with many and only delayed World War II by not even a year, history acknowledges that the intervening months gave the Allies the crucial time to prepare for war. Knowing that Munich almost didn’t happen and the talks threatened to fall apart moment to moment doesn’t detract from Harris’ sleek and suspenseful narrative. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann were friends together at Oxford. Now, Hugh is an aide with the British foreign office, and Paul, a German nationalist, is one of the civil servants and military officers plotting Hitler’s demise in Berlin. The two need to meet long enough in Munich for Paul to pass a message to British intelligence, but he is being watched by Hitler’s henchmen. Harris sustains the tension throughout, and his fictional characters have the solidity of the historical figures who come to life in the fast-moving pages.  A thriller of diplomacy and espionage, Munich’s a book for our times.

Seen from above, a garden maze is a miracle of symmetry and relatively easy to traverse. But when you’re in the maze, navigating the intricate loops proves more difficult. Oh, for a map! Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a miracle of symmetry from any perspective, an artfully constructed historical novel in which five stories are superimposed, one on top the other through time, in Newport, R.I. We begin in 2011, with a poor but handsome tennis pro romancing several women, one an heiress with cerebral palsy. In 1896, a closeted man-about-town woos a wealthy widow who owns the Windermere estate. Thirty years earlier, a young Henry James aspires to be a writer by observing Newport society. During the American Revolution, a manipulative British soldier plots to seduce the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. And in 1692, a young Quaker woman feels she must marry after her father is lost at sea.

Smith nimbly braids these distinct narratives loosely at first, then tighter as the book progresses. Similar themes of race and class, love and money emerge and then converge. Past is prism and palimpsest. A familiarity with Henry James — Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress — deepens appreciation, but there’s nothing fusty or longwinded about The Maze at Windermere. Each character is true to his or her time and speaks accordingly. Still, it is the young James who seems to sum up their thoughts when he writes, “We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.” I got lost in The Maze at Windermere and loved every page.

It’s been a good month for historical novels. One of my other favorites is Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Harper, review) which I reviewed for the Minneapolis StarTribune. (https://tinyurl.com/yc4mmrze). It’s the sprawling saga of a walled English estate depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th. In Fools and Mortals (Harper, digital galley), Bernard Cornwell takes a break from the Saxons and turns to Shakespeare, expertly evoking Elizabethan times. His adventure tale focuses on Shakespeare’s handsome younger brother Richard, an actor in Will’s troupe who is charged with retrieving the original script of A Midsummer’s Night Dream after it is stolen by a rival theatrical company. Enter complications pursued by hi-jinks. Seriously, it’s quite good. Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing (Atria, library hardcover)  pays homage to Agatha Christie as young Englishwoman Lily Shepherd, a former housemaid, books passage to Australia in the summer of 1939. There’s shipboard romance and intrigue as Lily’s fellow travelers include an amiable brother and sister with health issues, a Jewish schoolteacher who has fled her home in Vienna, a mysterious and wealthy American couple, an embittered spinster, a bullying bigot, a nervous mother and her teenage daughter, and a naive housemaid.  Lauren Willig’s a pro at romantic suspense, and sets her entertaining The English Wife (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in Gilded Age New York. Janie Van Duyvil uncovers family secrets when her older brother Bayard is murdered at a fancy dress ball and his English wife Annabelle disappears. A parallel narrative introduces readers to the music halls of London and a beautiful singer who calls herself George. Janie’s a shy, somewhat tiresome character in the beginning, but she finds confidence (and love) when a tabloid reporter joins her in a quest for answers.

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marycelesteWhat are the odds? The evening news tells of an abandoned ship sailing the Atlantic filled with cannibal rats. On a recent episode of PBS’s Sherlock, a reference is made to the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Then the novel I’m reading, Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, digital galley), includes an abandoned ship, a chapter titled “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” and Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Synchronicity. Serendipity. Martin makes elegant use of both as she stitches fact and fiction about shipwrecks, spiritualism, and Doyle flexing his storytelling skills. He is one of many fascinated by the actual mystery of the Mary Celeste, an American brig found floating at sea in 1872 with her cargo intact, her crew nowhere to be found. He even writes a bizarre tale about such a ship where a passenger goes berserk and murders all aboard, presenting it as an authentic account. Traveling in America in the 1894, he savors his new fame, not realizing that Philadelphia medium Violet Petra has a link to the tragedy. He thinks Violet is truly clairvoyant, but journalist Phoebe Grant is certain she’s a fake. Writing from multiple perspectives, Martin offers a story as rich and strange as one of Doyle’s. Full fathom five . . .

harrisRobert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy (Knopf, digital galley) recounts the infamous Dreyfus Affair from the viewpoint of an actual French army officer, George Picquart, who like many of his compatriots believes Capt. Alfred Dreyfus is a traitor. But shortly after Dreyfus is stripped of his rank in 1895 and shipped off to Devil’s Island, Picquart is promoted to head the military’s counterespionage unit and finds evidence that another spy has been passing secrets to the Germans. He also realizes that Dreyfus is the victim of a anti-Semitic conspiracy by military higher-ups, who aren’t pleased by Picquart’s investigation and derail his career. Harris unravels the complexities of the case with a novelist’s flair and a historian’s eye for detail, but I didn’t find it as thrilling as his novels The Ghost, Enigma or Archangel, where he allowed his imagination free rein.

inventionSomething similar occurs in Sue Monk Kidd’s involving The Invention of Wings (Viking, digital galley), which was inspired by the life of Sarah Grimke, a real-life abolitionist and feminist from Charleston, S.C. It’s a matter of record, Kidd writes in an afterward, that Sarah was presented with a house slave, 10-year-old Hetty, on her 11th birthday. The real Hetty died young, but Kidd re-imagines her as spirited and resourceful “Handful,” who is more pragmatic about her fate than precocious Sarah, who tries to emancipate her. When that fails, she teaches Hetty to read, and both girls are severely punished. Their friendship is tested by time and distance — Sarah finding refuge in Quaker Philadelphia, Hetty still a slave in the Grimke household — but both persevere in their ambitions and ideals. The dual narratives work well for the most part, but Hetty’s story is more harrowing and heartbreaking. Although Sarah’s accomplishments are many and laudable, she just isn’t as compelling a character when contrasted with the imagined Hetty. Both are strong women, but Hetty is more memorable, more real.

mrsblakeApril Smith is quick to write that while the circumstances of her new novel are factual, the majority of the characters are fictional. Still, A Star for Mrs. Blake (Knopf, digital galley),  has the veracity of real lives and true emotion. In 1931, Cora Blake is a librarian in a Maine fishing village whose only son died in World War I. As a “Gold Star Mother,” she joins a group of other women on a government-sponsored trip to France to visit the graves of the fallen and bid a final goodbye. The group line-up is familiar from central casting — the Boston society matron, the Jewish farmer’s wife under her husband’s thumb, the Irish maid. A Southern black seamstress has the same surname as a woman recently released from a mental hospital, but the group’s escorts, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond  and nurse Lily Barnett, quickly resolve the mix-up. The voyage over and the visit to the Meuse-Argonne is crowded with incident: flirtations, affairs, a scandal, a secret or two. Cora remains the star of the story; of particular interest is her friendship with a badly scarred war reporter who wears a tin mask and her relationship with the good man who waits for her at home. Throughout, Smith’s lovely writing elevates the story above  sentimental predictability.

underskyAs someone who learned to read from A Child’s Garden of Verses and has long been fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and works, I had great expectations of Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Random House, digital galley). The Scottish writer and his plucky, older American wife Fanny Osbourne had a-larger-than-life romance and marriage marked by RSL’s health troubles, frequent travel to exotic locales and career conflicts. And it’s still a good story, although Horan’s workaday prose threatens to rob Louis and Fanny of all vitality, turning them into characters who profess passion — for art and literature, for one another, for a wide and starry life — but who never leap off the page. Maybe someone should make a movie. . .

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