As I mentioned in my Hallowe’en/ Samhain post,
I have been reading Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield. I anticipated enjoying this book greatly, based on my experience of The Thirteenth Tale. Unfortunately, that anticipation was misplaced. In most book reviews, I hesitate to give away too much, but in this instance it doesn’t make a difference in your experience of the story. I will reserve the ending.
You get the highlights in the book description on the dust cover. When he is a boy, William has three other friends—all born in the same month of the same year—with whom he runs and plays. As boys did in Victorian England, one of their pastimes is to shoot at things with slingshots. One day William lines up an impossible shot aimed at an immature rook perched in a tree and, against all odds, he hits and kills it. Then there are ominous pronouncements about how rooks never forget, rooks are smart, rooks will avoid you if they perceive you as evil, etc.
William grows up, forgets about this incident, is taken on at his uncle’s mill, and discovers that he has an uncanny sense of how to better a business. He revamps everything about the mill, endearing himself to both his uncle and the workers. When his uncle dies, the heir, his cousin Charles, an amateur painter and art collector who prefers to spend his time in Italy, lets William get on with running the business for a large share of the profits. He does well, takes a wife, has four children, and then…everyone starts to die.
After his uncle, it’s the three boys with whom he grew up, who drop one by one for various reasons; then a fever comes to town and takes away all of his family but one. And at each funeral, he sees the same man, dressed in black, hovering around the churchyard, giving him significant looks, winks and smiles, but somehow eluding him whenever William tries to engage the man. Finally, at the last funeral, William, desperate to save his daughter Dora, talks to the man, and seems to think they have struck a deal to keep Bellman’s one remaining child alive. From this man (supposedly), Bellman gets the impetus to open a large emporium in London that deals with every aspect of the death industry, from coffins to mourning clothes to stationery to gravestones. It is to be a magnificent edifice, five stories high and boasting its own live-in staff of seamstresses, and Bellman regards the elusive Mr. Black (as William has christened him) as a sleeping partner.
End of part one. Although it’s taken a long time (and a whole lot of details about running the mill) to get there, you’re thinking oh, this is where William Bellman starts interacting with and attempting to placate Mr. Black, who is somehow the nemesis who has brought all these deaths into William Bellman’s life. Hmmm.
This is supposed to be a ghost story. There are no ghosts. Bellman is indeed haunted—by his numerous dead, and by Mr. Black—but he manages not to realize it, because he keeps himself so frantic with establishing and running his businesses that he evades every thought in his head not involved with inventories, displays, products, sales figures, and improvements. You keep reading, and waiting. You get more tidbits of information about rooks. You get more descriptions of William’s evasive actions that keep his business thriving but deprive him of all self-knowledge. You finally get to the end, and…what?!
I don’t know what to say about this book. It is beautifully written, and it is obviously about life and death and grief, and yet its main character does not grieve, scarcely acknowledges either the living or the dead, and manages to live in a psychological wasteland of his own contriving. You could call it Victorian gothic, or psychological fiction, or literary fiction, but in the end, it’s 300+ pages of description about the processes, not the thoughts or feelings, of one man’s life. And while I found the technical details of both the milling process from shearing to finished dyed cloth, and even the conception and set-up of the Bellman & Black emporium to be fascinating from an historical perspective, it’s not enough to carry the rest. Bellman is basically running from both death and grief, but it isn’t particularly ominous, or powerful, or poignant, or cathartic. It is lyrical, but it is slow, and its conclusion, for me, was incredibly disappointing and somewhat vague. I can’t say it was a bad book…but I honestly couldn’t recommend it. Which makes me sad.
In my previous review, I mentioned another book with the same feel as this one, in terms of the lyrical narrative and kind of weird premise. The book is Far Far Away, by Tom McNeal. In that story the protagonist, Jeremy Johnson Johnson (his parents both had the same last name) is guided in life by a voice in his head. It is, specifically, the voice of Jacob Grimm, one of the two renowned Brothers Grimm who collected the fairy tales. Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil that is being whispered about in the space between this world and the next and apparently threatens him. But when town troublemaker Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy, a grim (pardon the pun) set of events is put into motion. Many fairy tales don’t have happy endings…
This was such a strange, fanciful, weird, interesting book. Because it’s mostly told from the viewpoint of Jacob Grimm, the narration has an old-fashioned quality that makes you feel like you’re in a fairy tale taking place in the 1800s, but it is in fact set in a 20th-century small town, with electricity, television, and all the amenities. It’s an odd mix, but it works, and the story has an arc with a satisfying ending. I offer it as an alternative.
I never bypass the chance to read a novel by Peter Heller. I love that I never know what to expect—each book is so different from the one before, but all are gripping; his prose is both spare and lush in its evocations; and on top of that, the guy can tell a story. Once having read both The Painter and The Dog Stars, I would have been hard pressed to choose a favorite between them, and although I liked Celine less, it was, again, such a departure from previous works that both its characters and its mystery intrigued me.
His new book, The River, is similarly powerful. The sense of uneasiness evoked from the very first page builds to a cascade of climactic moments, each overpowering the previous one, until you wash into the ebb tide of the epilogue and realize you’ve been holding your breath for a good part of the book.
Two college friends, Dartmouth classmates Jack and Wynn, are taking a much-dreamed-of trip together, setting aside a few weeks to canoe a series of lakes into a northern-flowing river up into Canada. Jack, who was raised on a ranch in Colorado, is the more experienced of the two at camping and hunting, but Wynn, a gentle giant from rural Vermont, has his share of skills. They plan a leisurely trip of trout fishing, blueberry picking, and a slow trek through a route that alternates between smooth, flat water idyllic for paddling and rapids that must either be run or portaged around.
All of this changes one afternoon halfway through the trip, when the two climb a hill and see the glow of a massive forest fire about 25 miles off but clearly headed directly across their path. The lakes up until now have been completely empty of humans, and the two boys have enjoyed the cry of the loons and the spectacle of moose, bear, and other wildlife, but as they paddle upstream with new urgency, they encounter first a pair of men, drunk on whiskey and lolling in their campsite with no awareness of their peril, and then, as fog drops down and obscures the shore, they hear the voices of a man and woman, arguing passionately, their voices bouncing across the water. They warn the men about the fire, but can’t catch a glimpse of the contentious couple, and paddle on to their next campsite.
The next day, burdened with a sense of guilt for not searching harder, Jack and Wynn agree to turn back and warn the couple, if they can be found. This turns out to be a fateful decision that burdens them for the rest of their trip with unexpected responsibilities, dangers, and crises over and above the dreaded wildfire, which approaches ever closer.
Heller always delivers on atmosphere, and even if you have never camped out, paddled a canoe, or caught a fish, you are right there with his characters on the bank of the lakes and river, looking at the stars, watching the raptors in their nests at the tops of the tallest trees, or reeling in a line with a brown trout on the hook. The reader also gets quickly inside the heads of both protagonists, as well as tapping into the quiet and solid friendship between the two, which nonetheless becomes strained as events ramp up to catastrophe and their differing temperaments emerge.
As with his other books, I read this one in a day and a half, only deterred from one continuous sit-down by a traitorously depleted battery in my Kindle. In an interview for Bookpage, Heller said that he writes…
“…a thousand words a day, every day, and I always stop in the middle of a scene or a compelling train of thought. Most writers I know write through a scene. But if you think about it, that’s stopping at a transition, a double-return, white space. That’s what you face the next morning; it’s almost like starting the book fresh. If you stop in the middle, you can’t wait to continue the next day.”
That same sense of urgency pervades me as I read any of his books.
Although I included The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett, in a previous list of “books about books,” I hadn’t actually had the pleasure of reading it.
I finally got around to it recently, and felt I had to follow up with a little more detail about this delightful story.
A certain generation of us were raised with a particular consciousness of England’s royal family, because the abdication of Edward VIII from the throne (in favor of marrying a divorceé, Wallis Simpson, which simply wasn’t “done” at the time) catapulted his brother, Albert, to the throne as George VI. The key ingredient to this story for girls, however, was that George VI had two daughters, Elizabeth (the next heir) and Margaret Rose, who were instantly in the limelight, and we were fascinated with their every move—their dress, their hobbies, their education, their pets….
Already predisposed towards the love of princesses,
I came to know about the real ones through a book my mother bought me, called The Little Princesses, by Marion Crawford. The initial events took place in the 1930s when “Lilibet” and Margaret were five and two years old, respectively (well before my time), but the book, written by the princesses’ long-time governess, “Crawfie” (as she was nicknamed by Elizabeth), was published in the 1950s, and it crossed my path when I was seven—able to read its grown-up text but probably not able to understand some of it until re-reads years later. I was nonetheless fascinated with the whole story, and particularly the photographs of the princesses and their governess, dogs, ponies, and so on that were included in the book, and over which I pored at length.
The book explores the inner life of the royal family from the girls’ childhood up through Elizabeth’s wedding and the birth of her son, Prince Charles. It does so lovingly and without a hint of scandal or any lack of respect, but Crawford was nonetheless banned from the family (and from her employment) for writing it, despite her claim of having been given permission to do so. The rumor is that the Queen Mother felt the intimacy of the narrative would detract from the mystique of the holder of the throne.
Cut to the recent past, when Queen Elizabeth’s early reign has been explored by the Netflix series “The Crown.” In it, Elizabeth is portrayed as deeply uncertain and vulnerable on the inside but formal, traditional, and almost staid in her mannerisms (particularly for a young woman) on the outside—ever conscious of her image and her duty to uphold a certain appearance. For those who had read the account by Crawford of her formative years, the portrayal was spot on, and continued a sense of exactly who Elizabeth II is in the world (even to the uncanny similarity of appearance between the actress, Claire Foy, and the young queen).
I preface my comments about The Uncommon Reader with all this simply to say that Alan Bennett also has an extraordinary grasp of both the woman and the office, and portrays her as a somewhat elderly woman who has pursued exactly the life Elizabeth II has lived, only to find that something has been missing that, upon its discovery, changes everything.
A short synopsis of the book: Queen Elizabeth, wandering outdoors in search of her beloved corgis, stumbles upon a bookmobile near the palace. She feels compelled by good manners to check out a book, which she struggles through, returns, and feels compelled to take out another. But this one she enjoys! This behavior is out of character for the Queen, who has previously allowed herself few hobbies or interests that express a preference for anything, and now here she is, preferring books, which habit begins to influence the person she is and how she reigns and interacts with her subjects. Not everyone approves, however; politicians and staff collaborate to steer her away from this selfish, isolating, alienating addiction!
In his tiny volume (shown here in my gargantuan hand just to convey size and scale), Bennett absolutely nails the personality, the inner thoughts, and the outer habits of the Queen, along with the judgments and expectations of those intimates of her court who are always on the lookout for aberrant behavior from their monarch, with the desire to neatly nip it in the bud. But Elizabeth isn’t going to be ruled by their expectations (after all, who is the queen here?) and quietly pursues her new hobby to an astonishing and humorous end. If you are a person who loves books about books, and you also have a sneaking fascination with England’s monarchy, don’t miss out reading this charming but also revelatory and even mildly subversive novella.
I blogged some months ago about books written about books and readers, a category of book beloved by avid readers, and promised more titles for those “afflicted” by bibliophilia. Here, then, is another batch to add to my previous post.
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
Queen Elizabeth, in search of her beloved corgis, stumbles upon a bookmobile near the palace. She feels compelled by good manners to check out a book, which she struggles through, returns, and again feels compelled to take out another. But this one she enjoys! This behavior is out of character for the Queen, who has previously allowed herself few hobbies or interests that express a preference for anything, and now here she is, preferring books, which habit begins to influence the person she is and how she reigns and interacts with her subjects. Not everyone approves, however; politicians and staff collaborate to steer her away from this selfish, isolating, alienating addiction! A charming and clever novella that contains some astringent commentary within its simple story.
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend,
by Katarina Bivald
Sara travels all the way from Sweden to small-town Iowa to meet her penpal, Amy, only to discover that it’s the day of Amy’s funeral. The town’s residents rally around to make her feel better, and she ends up staying in Amy’s home, surrounded by Amy’s wide-ranging collection of books. She doesn’t want to return to Sweden, so she decides to open up one of the depressed town’s abandoned storefronts and sell Amy’s books. But she’s in the United States on a tourist visa…. I enjoyed the quirkiness of this virtual ghost town and its offbeat inhabitants who are finding revitalization through the presence of this strange and unassuming book-loving young woman from Sweden.
The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler
Set in California’s Central Valley, this book follows the stories of five women and one man who start a book club to read and discuss the novels of Jane Austen. The action takes place over a six-month period, during which many interpersonal issues (some of which reflect what’s happening within the novels of Austen) take place among and between these fans. This is a book about people who love reading and love talking about reading. It’s a little satirical, and apparently not for everyone—there are some passionate expressions both for and against in the reviews on Goodreads! One reader wrote: “I’m convinced the first thing Jane Austen is going to do on the Day of Resurrection is to hire a lawyer and sue the philistines who have commandeered her name and characters.” Try it for yourself (or chicken out and watch the movie, which some say was better).
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
A book based on letters between a London writer and a man on the island of Guernsey immediately after World War II. He finds her name and address in a used book, and writes to her about the literary club he and his friends formed to evade the curfew imposed by the German occupying force of their island. Some felt the epistolary style left out too much of the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, while others were inspired to find more letter-based books, so consider to which kind of reader you are speaking, before recommending
A Novel Bookstore,
by Laurence Cossé
Francesca, the lonely but wealthy Italian wife of a Parisian captain of industry, and Ivan, an indigent seller of comic books and classic novels, combine forces to open a bookstore in the heart of Paris that has one simple goal: to sell only “good” novels. They form a secret committee of eight celebrated writers, asking each to submit a list of six hundred titles. These dictate the inventory that fills the shelves of The Good Novel Bookstore. Imagine what happens when the publishing industry and the “literati” get wind of this pair who are daring to narrowly define what constitutes a good novel—especially when their enterprise is successful!
Voices, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Ansul was a peaceful town filled with libraries and books before the Alds came. The conquerors didn’t just pillage the town and rape its occupants, they burned all the books and set up an oppressive regime under which the people of Ansul suffer. Memer, an orphan who is a product of the rape of an Ansul woman by an Ald, has a secret bond with the Waylord, who hides and preserves books for his people. LeGuin explores the role of the occupier and the occupied, the double-edged sword of religion as a force of peace and war, and the value of storytelling to transform the lives of individuals and their culture. This is the second book of The Annals of the Western Shore series, but can be read as a stand-alone. (Young Adult Fiction)
Having re-explored all of these makes me want to seek out and read even more books about books! Stay tuned…
There are, particularly in the fairy tale tradition, many stories of children who disappear, some never to return, while others go away for awhile and come back but are never quite the same. Taking their cue from that old chestnut “Rip Van Winkle” are such series as the Chronicles of Narnia (a door at the back of the wardrobe), Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld (a mirror in the study), and others that perpetuate stories of strange worlds accessed by odd little doors and windows, burrows and mirrors that lead somewhere….
But finally, in Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, we have the bringing together of a group of “the returned” to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a boarding school run by a schoolmistress who went away, herself, to another world when young and therefore can empathize with their plight, stranded back in this one. Bewildered parents try to get their blessedly restored children to behave as they used to, but the children spend all their time longing to go back to the worlds where they finally felt at home, and the desperate parents send them to Eleanor, hoping for a miracle. But they may not get the one they’re wishing for….
This book is truly magical. Furthermore, the writing, the descriptions, the characters, and the mystery are all both lyrical and inspired. And although the description sounds old-fashioned, the telling of it is anything but: It’s a touching story about unconditional love.
The first thing I did as soon as I finished this book (which didn’t take long—the books in this series are novella-length) is to immediately read the next, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. That one turned out to be a prequel, since it details what happened to two of the characters (twin girls) from Every Heart A Doorway, immediately before that book started. Jack and Jill’s sterile background and their sojourn in the forbidding world of the moors dovetailed nicely into the first story and was such a satisfying explanation of their behavior in that book. The essence of this one is that there is no one way to be a girl, and there is no one way to love.
The third tale, Beneath the Sugar Sky, was as much a tiny jewel-like masterpiece as the other two, but it was both everything I was expecting and nothing like what I thought it would be, which is the best that you can wish from a book.
We meet characters from the first two stories—Christopher, who longs to return to his love, the Skeleton Girl, in a world best compared to an eternal celebratory Dia de los Muertos; Kade, who is preparing to be Aunt Eleanor’s successor at the Home for Wayward Children; and Nadya, who has been at the school going on five years but hasn’t yet given up and gone home. We also meet some new characters: Cora, the fat girl and champion swimmer, who yearns to return to the world where she was a mermaid with blue and green hair who never had to leave her element, the water; and Rini, who bursts upon the teens at the school like a revelation of what a Nonsense world can produce, Rini with her candy corn eyes and naïveté, in search of her mother, Sumi. This cast accompanies Rini across several worlds, being careful not to become stuck in any of them, intending to help Rini but also secretly hoping to find their several ways back to their own doorways. This book contains a powerful message about loving yourself, no matter your shape, size, or individual peculiarities.
The fourth book, In An Absent Dream, which was just released January 9th, is being confusingly billed on its flap as “a stand-alone tale in the award-winning Wayward Children series.” Although this is misleading (it is definitely a part of the series), if you read the first book and then jumped immediately to the fourth, you would still feel yourself firmly situated, since it cites nothing and includes no one from books two or three, but does solve a mystery presented in the first book.
Katherine Lundy is only six years old when she realizes that her entire life has already been planned out for her. Her father is the principal of her school, which ensures she has no friends; left to her own devices, she sees herself continuing on, quiet, polite, studious. She will sit in her room by herself, reading her books, until one day maybe she will become a librarian and then a wife and mother, as is expected by her family. But even at six, Katherine knows this isn’t the life she wants, and one day, she finds a door, her door, to somewhere she can be herself. (My favorite portal yet, btw.)
It’s a wonderful, evocative, and bittersweet chapter to this ongoing story; once again McGuire provides the language pictures to carry the reader completely into the worlds she paints. I couldn’t put it down, and I strongly suspect I will re-read this series more than once. McGuire has really struck a nerve with the idea that for those who feel like misfits in their own lives, there may exist doorways into places where they feel completely themselves, where they are loved, wanted, needed, where they belong. The yearning to get there lives with some people their whole lives, but in McGuire’s books, some of the people actually get to experience this coming home, for a little while—or, for a lucky few, forever.
Just as there are “crossover” books written for adults but both suitable for and interesting to teens (see “Alex Awards“), there are also some teen books that are equally readable by adults. In fact, for some of them, it’s a shame that they have been marketed and sold as a Young Adult title, because they deserve to be widely read.
One of these is the historical fiction book Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.
The book starts out a little confusingly: It’s about two young women in World War II England, mostly before America has entered the war. One of the women is a spy; the other is a pilot. Together, they make a great team. But the team has been split up: One of them has fallen into Nazi custody, and is being tortured to write down every detail she can dredge up about the British War Effort. She decides to write it down not from her own point of view but from that of her friend’s. It took me a while to get comfortable with the way the narrative has been switched around, but once I did, I was riveted.
I can say almost nothing about this book without giving away significant details that you should be allowed to discover on your own. I will say that the first half of the book is heart-breaking, but by the time you get to the twist in the middle, you are no longer reading the story, you are living it. I am not an emotional reader, but this book made me weep, both with sorrow and with joy. This story is among the best historical fiction I have read.
Nation, by the inimitable Terry Pratchett, creator of Disc World, is a stand-alone story of apocalyptic adventure in an alternate world much like ours. Its protagonist, Mau, is woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that changes everything; he has been living alone on the Boys’ Island, preparing to leave his boy soul there and make his transition to manhood in the ways of his tribe. But on the morning he sets out in his canoe to return to the island and people he knows as the Nation, everything there is destroyed by a giant tidal wave. The wave does wash something up on his shore, though—a ship with a sole survivor, a girl from an empire halfway around the globe, who will help him work through both shattering doubts and confidence-building certainties about the new life they both must create.
This book is deeply philosophical, examining complex religious and cultural concepts, but Pratchett dresses the philosophy in a wardrobe of ghosts and gods, talking parrots and mutineers, cannibals and secret treasures, forming a seamless story that keeps you enthralled to the very last page. While this was an honor book in 2009 for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and will certainly appeal to teens, it is a wonderful story for all ages. And, as with all Pratchett novels, it has many funny moments as well.
Although Meg Rosoff is best known for her post-apocalyptic teen book, Where I Live Now, one of her lesser known titles sticks in my mind as a great read for both older teens and adults. In The Bride’s Farewell, set in 1850s rural England and with a Hardyesque feel, Pell Ridley leaves her home in the middle of the night to avoid marrying her childhood beau; she can’t bear the thought of repeating her mother’s life of domestic drudgery and constant child-bearing. Her mute little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind, so the two ride her white horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Horse Fair, hoping to find work. When she loses everything dear to her, Pell must discover her own resources—both inner and outer—and decide what’s worth fighting for, clinging to, or surrendering.
I couldn’t put this book down—I started it at 7:00 p.m. one night, and finished it at midnight. It contains wonderful scene-setting as well as compelling characters and situations. Rosoff’s language is spare, but deeply emotional.
So…adults out there—by all means recommend these to your teens, but read them yourselves as well! And mention them to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus!
If you are a Tana French fan, as I am, there is no question that you will read whatever book she has written next; you just put a check in the “want to read” box on Goodreads and wait for its publication. And if you don’t want to buy your own personal copy so as to read it the instant it is released (I do, but I’m trying to come to terms with a new, slimmer budget, now that I am semi-retired), you resignedly log onto your local library catalogue, place a hold, and wait.
That’s what I did about six weeks ago, opting for the e-book with the idea that it would take less time to get than it would a hardcover copy. Then I promptly forgot about it and went about my business, until my email notification popped up to tell me that the e-book was awaiting me on my Kindle.
If you are a Tana French fan, then you know that all her books to date (six previous to this one) are part of a loose series called the Dublin Murder Squad, and each deals with a murder mystery to be solved by a Dublin detective. Each book has a different protagonist, although the others crop up in big, small, or completely incidental ways in the background of the books in which they don’t play lead. So while there is a familiarity about each book (a murder to be solved, a member of Dublin’s finest to do so), there is also a certain variety. You don’t know exactly what to expect, as you do with series in which the lead detective is always the same person. It’s kind of a genius way to write, if you can pull it off. Although I am a fan, for instance, of John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series, I have been vocal about my disappointment in those books in which he chooses one of his other characters as the lead. But so far, in her six books, French’s choices have never disappointed me, and I haven’t wavered in my slavering desire for the next one.
So, as I mentioned, The Witch Elm popped up on my Kindle a couple of days ago, and when I finished Michael Koryta’s book, I started to read. Imagine my confusion when, not having looked at a physical copy of the book for a flap synopsis or author blurb, I slowly realized that the Dublin Murder Squad was nowhere to be found? I kept reading as Toby, the average guy with a good job, friends, and a lovely girlfriend, went about his life, until one night he was mugged by burglars in his own home, and lay in the hospital recovering. Finally, two detectives showed up to take his statement, and I thought “Ah! here we go.”
Nope. The detectives came and went, and we stuck with Toby.
For her fans, this is a huge departure for French, and reactions will be mixed. Mystery readers and procedural fans may be disappointed. As with many procedurals, the crimes in French’s books, while clever, are the incidental vehicle, but the detectives’ engaging personal histories are what draw readers in and tempt them to return.
There is, eventually, a murder in this book, and there are some Dublin detectives taking an active part in its investigation; but the story continues to be told by the victims and, later, the perpetrators. Rather than featuring as the leads, the detectives maintain the persona that they represent to most people in real life: initially friendly and helpful, but also a looming source of panic and dread as their attention falls on you and you wonder, Do they really think I did this?
The book is a slow and intricate read, and takes almost 100 pages to build up to the discovery of the murder. Although some may believe that French’s editors were simply too afraid at this point to curtail the prose of such a successful writer, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Yes, I was initially somewhat frustrated to sit through the transformation of Toby from a basically happy-go-lucky guy to a man who didn’t know how or when he would ever recover from what’s been done to him. He’s pathetic, but he’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and my impatience grew with the narrative. But when the story transitions to the search for a murderer among Toby’s family, and so many questions are raised, you begin to realize that this book isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a psychological character study that, because of the unreliable nature of the characters, ramps up the tension exponentially with every page. In hindsight you see that all (okay, most) of that angst and drama you sat through with Toby was in service of everything that comes after, and you grow to appreciate your insider’s view as things continue to swing out of control. Although I had to make a little effort to get through the first part of this novel, I whipped through the last 30 percent of it between midnight and 3:00 a.m., and I don’t regret staying up one bit.
It’s hard, when you love unreservedly the kind of book that an author has reliably delivered as many times as has Tana French, and then she changes her focus. But I would call The Witch Elm a successful step in her career. If I’m honest, I still hope she returns to the Dublin Murder Squad, but I won’t be sad if, as well, we get a few one-offs like this one along the way.
For those who have never read Greek mythology, or who have hit just the basics but not all the extras, here is the story of the half-goddess Circe in a nutshell: She was the daughter of sun god and top Titan Helios, and Perse, an ocean nymph. She was a sorceress who was exiled by Zeus to an island, to which she lured Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War, seducing him and turning his sailors into pigs.
In Madeline Miller’s book Circe, we get the back story, the forward story, and pretty much the entire kitchen sink of Greek mythology, with mixed results.
We discover that the reason she was exiled by Zeus was that she was either A. clever enough to realize that certain flowers that had been bled upon by gods still contained powers and make use of them, or B. powerful enough within herself (despite no previous knowledge of this) to catastrophically transform both her love (a fisherman) and his subsequent flirt (a nymph) into, respectively, a god and a monster (in the nymph’s case, the monster Scylla).
This book feels like a saga; but is it an epic saga? Certainly it is a long story with many events, much colorful detail, and some extraordinary insight into the natures of both gods and mortals, but…
The main issue I had with the book was that it was a retelling rather than a reimagining. Although Miller certainly did some impressive research and tied things together beautifully, I could wish that she hadn’t tied in quite so much, and had instead focused more on a personal story for Circe. So many Greek myths and personages are crammed into this book’s pages that I felt like the objective of the book ceased at some point to be about Circe and instead focused on giving a slightly more personal feel to a panoply of stories about everybody from Daedalus to the Minotaur to Odysseus. The stories that were told from a first-hand point of view were most of them compelling; but the stories that were related about and to other characters in the book second- or third-hand were, dare I say, a bit tedious?
The book was also both accurate and depressing about the depth of disdain in which women (in which I include goddesses, nymphs and other supernaturals, and human females) were held by both gods and men in these legends and these times. Not that it should have surprised any of us, but the portrayal of the almost offhandedly vicious disregard for women’s feelings, their priorities, and life itself was constant and disheartening.
The parts of the book I loved unreservedly were Circe’s personal experiences and, paradoxically, the most mundane details of the story. After her exile to Aeaea, she must come to terms with being alone and isolated on this island and turn it into her own place. The passages about her immersion in nature and the delight she took in it, and also the narration of the everyday tasks of feeding the livestock, tending her garden, and gathering herbs, learning to weave, and all the daily routine, were beautifully showcased. They made me think of poetry such as William Butler Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” with its mesmerizing tone of joy.
I also rooted for her as she began to come into her powers, trying them out and honing her knowledge and practice of witchcraft. The paradox at which she finally arrives—that despite her embrace of herself and her powers as good, she is also subject to fate and the whims and brutality of those more powerful than she—finally made the book into something more than just a serial retelling of the deeds of heroes.
I also have to say that the language of the book was beautifully simple but evocative and musical, and while there were a few overwrought passages, there were also many phrases that I enjoyed reading over several times as I passed them in the narrative.
I would by all means recommend assaying Circe to anyone with even a faint interest in the subject matter (and by all means pick up her earlier book, The Song of Achilles); but for a story that deals in a much more original manner with the whims of the gods, you could also try The Just City, by Jo Walton. Walton takes the basic natures and legends of a few of the gods and applies a walloping serving of “what if?” to them with amazing results. On the other hand, if you want other personalized treatments of Greek legends and philosophy that are classic, beautifully written and timeless, read the works of Mary Renault: The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea, The Mask of Apollo, The Last of the Wine. I have enjoyed all her books several times over.