Saturday, July 15, 2017

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy

Two families are on a cruise down the coast of Central America.  They meet a family from Argentina on board.  As with most cruises, the ship puts in to port most days and there are options for excursions.  One day the mothers and kids decide to go zip lining in Costa Rica (although the country is never named) while the fathers go to play golf.  Disaster ensues. 

I have little tolerance for "children are in danger - and the parents are full of angst" novels because I mostly think it is a cheap trick to keep the reader turning the pages.  And this is that kind of novel.  So, if you like that kind of thing you might like this for a beach read.  If you don't, don't bother. 

A few thoughts.

There are six children ranging in age from about 5 to teenager.  Two are white, two are bi-racial and two are Argentinian.  All of these kids are wealthy.  There are also two other Latino children who become involved, both of whom are poor.  It was never completely clear to me why Meloy decided to create a bi-racial couple with children but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was so she could have bad things happen to the Latino children (but not the white children) and still have a defense that this wasn't racist.  But the fact is, the only kids to whom physically bad things happen are not the American kids.  This really bothered me.

A particularly bad thing happens to the 14 year old Argentinian girl.  Not a particularly surprising thing, given the circumstances; but a bad thing.  This kind of bad thing is never the victim's fault although people often blame the victim.  Meloy does pretty much everything to make it seem like it was her fault.  

The happy ending for one of the kids was resolved so easily with no apparent complications, which I found completely unbelievable.   Maybe that's just because we're living in an age of such intense anti-immigration feeling.  But I think it was unbelievable even before the last year. 

A person I know who writes mystery novels once said that all the best novels rely on coincidences that aren't noticed.   I was distracted by all the coincidences in this novel. 

Finally, if you've ever read A High Wind in Jamaica you don't need to read this novel.   It was better and you've pretty much already been spoiled for plot twists. She isn't trying to pass anything off here; the book opens with a quote from that novel.  But basically this is a retelling of that story. It may be that Hughes' novel worked better for me because it mostly told the story about the children and didn't dwell on the psychological angst of the parents. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

House of Names by Colm Toibin

When I was a small child my father worked as a textbook editor at McGraw-Hill.  One of the perks of his job was that he could bring home samples of children's textbooks.  Programmed reading was the rage at the time: children working at their own pace, teaching themselves to read and checking their own work. My sisters and I had an entire set of programmed readers. 

The last, and most difficult, of the programmed readers drew on the Greek myths for their stories. These were the books that I read over and over.  As I grew older, I would search my public library branch for more stories of the ancient Greeks.  One of my favorites was a young adult novel, its name long-ago forgotten, about the Trojan War.  That book led me on a search for more stories of the men and women who populate the tales of the Trojan War:  Priam, Helen, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Agamemnon.  Eventually I read the Iliad and the Odyssey.  And over the years I've seen productions of Greek tragedies and operas based on them.

I've never, as an adult, found a novel based on Greek myths or tales, especially tales related to the Trojan War, that has swept me away in the same way that I was swept away to ancient Greece as a child. But I always have hope. 

House of Names by Colm Toibin, is a retelling of the story of the fall of the House of Atreus.  As the story goes, Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greek armies during the ten-year long Trojan war, returns home after the fall of Troy and his wife, Clytemnestra, murders him.  In his bath.  It was beyond his comprehension, apparently, that she would be nursing a bitter rage toward him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to the gods at the start of the war to insure favorable winds for the fleet.  The murder of their father of course screws with the minds of their remaining two children:  daughter Electra and son Orestes. Orestes, who stays away for years, eventually returns and murders his mother to avenge his father. 

Toibin retells this story from the point of view of Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes, the novel being divided into parts that take the point of view of one specific character.  For the women, he takes a first person perspective.  For Orestes he takes a third person omniscient perspective.  The women are, of course, unreliable narrators although they are sure of their own perspectives.  We are no more sure of the story of Orestes, partly because he is portrayed not only as young but, frankly, as a little simple.

If you are, like me, a person who reads historical novels to be transported to another time and place this is probably not the novel for you.  Toibin's ancient Greece could be anywhere.  There is a lot of telling and not showing.   The story is, of course, horrifying.  His Iphegenia does not go calmly to her murder but struggles and screams.  There is blood and gore.   And the treatment of her mother is horrific.  It is easy to see why Clytemnestra plots revenge.  It also easy to understand how her other children are unable to understand the state of mind of their mother.  Orestes is too young to really understand what is going on and Electra is appalled that their mother would take a conniving cousin of their father's as her lover.  Clytemnestra, as is usual with adults, doesn't take the time to explain her motivations to her children.  And of course, there IS the lover. 

In the stories of ancient Greece the gods influence the actions of humans which is a hard concept for modern people to understand. Toibin dispenses with the problem of the gods by having Clytemnestra reject all religion.  Which is a bit too easy since presumably religion was an important part of life in ancient Greece.  Orestes is too young to worry about the gods and Electra, well Electra is (as usual) the most difficult to relate to whether there are gods or not.  

His style in the first section (Clytemnestra's version of the murder of Iphinegia) is spare, I assume because he is trying to evoke a translation of ancient Greek?  The parts of the story about Orestes are the easiest to read, with the third person style.  But the landscape and peoples he encounters could be ancient Britain or Ireland as much as ancient Greece.  Toibin explains Orestes' long absence by creating a kidnapping situation from which he and two other boys escape.  The other two boys ended up being, for me, far more interesting than Orestes.

One of the more distracting parts of the novel for me was figuring out the passage of time.  The Trojan War lasted 10 years but in this re-telling it feels as if Agamemnon is gone for only a relatively short time.  And there isn't really a reference to the Trojan conflict.  For all any reader of this novel would know, Agamemnon was simply gone on a war of conquest.  There is no mention of the concept that Helen was abducted much less that she existed much less that she was Agamemnon's sister-in-law much less that she was the sister of Clytemnestra.  In the original tales, Orestes is gone a long time, enough time to grow to manhood.   But again, it feels as if he is gone only a few years.   Electra never seems to age in this story. 

But the real problem for my was that, by the end of the novel, I found that I didn't really care what happened to any of them.  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

The age of Hamilton (the hit musical, not the man) is spawning a new interest in eighteenth century America, something that seemed impossible just a few years ago.  Characters sporting powdered hair, breeches and tri-corner hats are no longer assumed to be beyond the understanding of today's audiences, but are understood to harbor the same emotions and flaws that one might find among one's own neighbors.  Or at least on any modern cable television drama. 

Francis Spufford sets his novel, Golden Hill:  A Novel of Old New York, thirty years before the infamous declaration written in Philadelphia.  On November 1, 1746, a mysterious traveler from London named Richard Smith arrives in New York harbor bound for the firm of Lovell & Company on Golden Hill Street.  Smith presents a bill of exchange drawn upon Lovell & Company for a thousand pounds sterling payable 60 days after presentment - a fortune in that day and age.  During the 60 days that the mysterious Mr. Smith waits for his money, he refuses to tell a soul why he has come to New York, where he came by this fortune or what he will use the funds for, thus commencing much speculation by the denizens of this small city as to his background and his intentions.  Is he a spy?  Is he a representative of one of the ministries of government?  Is he an actor? A Saracen conjurer?  An agent of the French?  Or is he simply a fraud and a scoundrel?

Solving the mystery of Smith and his fortune is not so much the plot of the novel, as an excuse to give us a picture of colonial New York. Eighteenth century New York is as much a character in this novel as any of the human characters.  This is a New York that no longer exists. Indeed it had disappeared by the early nineteenth century, mostly destroyed by war and fire. Not the metropolis that it is today, it occupies only the lower tip of Manhattan island and was small by world standards.  As Spufford points out in his Author's Note, in 1746 the city of New York had a population of only seven thousand while London, the largest city in Europe, had seven hundred thousand.  It is, in fact, a small town compared to London.  And in a small town it is difficult to keep secrets or, indeed, to have a private life. Mr. Smith finds that, within 24 hours of his arriving, "the news was all around the town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket."

The people of this colonial city are familiar and yet foreign to Mr. Smith.  He is astonished to discover on his first day in the city that the faces of women are not marked by the pox as they are in Europe. He also finds that New York does not stink as London does.  "A Scene of City-Life, his eyes reported. A Country-Walk, in a Seaside District, his nostrils counter argued. No smells; also, he realized, no beggars."  And the people were taller than he expected.  "He was used, in the piazza of Covent Garden, to stand taller by a head than the general crowd; but here, in the busy bobbing mass of heads, he was no taller than the average."

We explore the streets of old New York with Smith; they are not only described but they are named. Smith chases a thief from the tip of Manhattan up to the commons; he winds through the streets visiting every tavern and dive looking for a particular kind of investigator.  At one point, suspected of being a papist French spy, he is chased through the town by a drunken mob.  One recommendation to the publishers:  a map of Old New York would have been useful to those of us who are not native and could not follow the street by street descriptions in our minds. 

One of the joys of this novel is its depiction of commerce in eighteenth century America and specifically how the shortage of real money (coin money) made transactions difficult. Mr. Smith discovers this when he tries to convert some gold guineas into smaller change in the local currency:

Lovell accordingly began to count out a pile of creased and folded slips next to the silver, some printed black and some printed red and some brown, like the despoiled pages of a prayerbook, only of varying shapes and sizes; some limp and torn; some leathery with grease; some marked only with dirty letterpress and others bearing coats-of-arms, whales spouting, shooting stars, feathers, leaves, savages; all of which he laid down with the rapidity of a card dealer, licking his fingers for the better passage of it all.

"Wait a minute," said Mr. Smith.  "What's this?"

"You don't know our money, sir?" said the clerk.  "They didn't tell you we use notes, specie being so scarce, this side?"

"No," said Smith.

The pile grew.

"Fourpence Connecticut, eightpence Rhode Island," murmured Lovell. "Two shilling Rhode Island, eighteenpence Jersey, one shilling Jersey, eighteenpence Philadelphia, one shilling Maryland ..."

It makes one appreciate the banking genius of Alexander Hamilton after the revolution. But Alexander Hamilton is not yet born, much less arrived in New York to attend Kings College (Columbia University).  Indeed there is no King's College yet.

As the title states, this is a novel of "Old New York" not a novel about the thirteen colonies or even about North America.  Except for one short errand up the Hudson, the action all takes place in lower Manhattan.  There are no visits to the larger city of Philadelphia or up to Boston.  There is almost no discussion of the other colonies.  There is, in fact, little discussion of the vast continent that lies across the Hudson River. At one point someone points out to Smith that New York is crowded with transient persons - they disembark from ships and then leave, the continent "devouring" them.  But Smith is remarkably incurious about the continent, only once or twice reflecting on its vastness. When native Americans are mentioned, it is generally in connection with the war with the French.  And not one native American seems to be residing in New York during Mr. Smith's time there; or at least he never encounters one. 
This is a novel about how normal New York would seem to a Londoner, while at the same time remaining foreign. The people are in some ways more patriotic than Londoners.  Smith is constantly surprised by the fervor with which the people support, and toast, King George II.  But at the same time they are obsessed with the idea of liberty.  The City is in the midst of an ideological battle between adherents of the Assembly, led by chief judge DeLancey ("a massive and statuesque Roman head, finely modeled at ear and nose, like a slightly depraved but very intelligent emperor"), and Governor Clinton ("with a peanut-shaped brow and an anxious expression letting down the blue and gold of his coat").  The Assembly adherents are strongly protective of their sole right over the purse strings; the Governor is desperate for a budget.

War with France is on the minds of the people of New York.  They are bothered by the idea that they are alone on the other side of the Atlantic to fight the French (and papist) enemy on their border. But they are also outraged that the Governor has sent a regiment into upstate New York and expects New York to support them.  In fact the Assembly has not deigned to vote any money for support.  

But this political background is not really the point.  The point is that, while it is a British colony, New York is also different than Britain.  News from Europe about the waging of the war in Europe arrives slowly and late.  Even the name of the war is foreign to Mr. Smith.  King George's war, the local people call it. "We call all our wars, here, by the names of monarchs; as, King William's War, Queen Anne's War, King George's."  Smith again remarks that they are quite the royalists in New York.  It  turns out that Smith's assumption that New York does not have its own dangers, political and otherwise, is what gets him into trouble time and again.

For all the New Yorkers' talk of liberty, Smith is constantly aware that some in the City are not at liberty.  Enslaved black people populate the City.  They seem to be almost invisible to the white population and yet they are everywhere, carrying on the work that the upper classes don't want to do.  Smith and the narrator are always aware of them, whether they have names like Achilles, a slave of the Governor's staff, and Zephyra, who acts as a sort of chaperone and maid for the Lovell daughters, or the unnamed black musician who plays at a dinner party given by the Lovells. 

And others, while more at liberty than slaves, still find themselves fettered by society.  This is not a society in which open homosexuality is tolerated.  And women are not as free as men to follow their desires.  When women do act on their impulses, society spurns them.
For a time it isn't clear whether Spufford is simply trying to do a better job than most white male writers at accurately representing the diversity of a society or whether there is a method to this inclusiveness.  Eventually it becomes clear that all of this diversity is a necessary component of his plot, which is both a delight and a relief.  

In form, this novel walks a line between imitating the style of an eighteenth century author and making it readable to modern eyes.  Not being well versed in the novels of Fielding and other novelists of the time, I can't say if he successfully captures their style.  It was a relief that after the first few paragraphs, he seemed to move into a more modern mode.  A small part of the novel is epistolary and while I generally love epistolary novels, I thought that was the weakest part of the novel although it became clear why the author felt it was necessary.

Most of the novel uses an omniscient narrator who does sometimes break the fourth wall and address the audience in humorous ways.  At one point the narrator admits that the description of a duel had to be researched in a book as the author had no experience of sword fighting and another time the narrator simply gives up on the attempt to describe the rules of a card game.  One of the best moments in the novel is when the omniscient narrator grows bored (or embarrassed) describing a sex scene from the point of view of a male character and suddenly suggests that we look at it from the point of view of the woman, going on to give a perceptive but humorous description. 

There is a romance of sorts in the novel.  The characters, familiar with Shakespeare, compare themselves to Beatrice and Benedick but allow that they aren't really very much like them.  In fact, the play that is never mentioned but seems to be the model for part of the novel is The Taming of the Shrew.  A wealthy man with two daughters.  One, the younger, is lovely and docile and has suitors.  The older may be lovely but is a shrew that no one wants to marry.  Perhaps the newly arrived stranger in town will take her off their hands?  

Shakespeare's Kate is a fascinating and yet frustrating character.  Each actress must make her own artistic decisions about Kate's motivation as Shakespeare never really explains her . And of course she is cured or "tamed"in the end,  the moral seemingly being that whether you are a shrew or not is a choice made solely by the individual.  The cage is of your own making.  Spufford makes it more interesting.  Is the cage of your own making?  Or is it made by society?  Or does it exist because of a part of your nature you can't change?  Or is it some combination? In the end, this is the question that readers will be debating in their own minds (or with friends) after they put down this novel.  

Spufford has now won the Desmond Elliott prize for debut novels as well as the Costa award for first novels (he has written other nonfiction books, but never a novel) as well as the Ondaatje award for books with a sense of place.  With such a striking debut, I look forward to more from his pen in the future.