31 August, 2015

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Book review

Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-61867-0. 477 pages

Life After Life is set in England and Germany between 1910 and 1967, against the background of the First and Second World Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Ursula Todd, born into a prosperous family in rural England in 1910, lives her life over and over again through the traumatic events of the first half of the twentieth century. The first time she is born, she dies before taking her first breath. On the second occasion, the doctor has arrived in time and baby Ursula survives to experience childhood during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1919. On other occasions, she experiences the Second World War as a young woman, both in Germany in the ruins of Berlin in 1945 and in London during the Blitz. Each time, she is disturbed by bewildering flashes of deja vu – glimpses into the past, present and future of alternative lives – but without fully understanding what they are. And in one of her lives she has a chance to change the course of history...

Most people, I imagine, have had occasions when they wonder about ‘the road not travelled’, and speculate on what might have happened if they had done X instead of Y at a particular point. Life After Life explores that concept, by allowing the central character to live her life many times over, each time taking a different path. Each cycle starts with her birth in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910, and each ends with the words ‘Darkness fell’. In one life she experiences a violent marriage; in others she avoids the events that led her to that marriage and develops other relationships. One life takes her to 1930s Germany, where she becomes friendly with Eva Braun and, through Eva, acquainted with a fringe politician called Adolf Hitler. Sometimes the different paths diverge wildly, sometimes many paths all lead to the same or very similar endings (several end at the 1918/1919 influenza epidemic, and several more end during the Blitz).

For me, by far the strongest part of the novel was the central section set in London during the Second World War. Ursula is an adult woman by then and experiences the Blitz in various ways during several of her lives. It is a dramatic and convincing portrayal of life for ordinary people, being bombed out of their homes, working in rescue services, fire-watching, and vividly describes the everyday privations, the many ghastly ways to suffer and die, the numbing effect of witnessing repeated horrors, and the random nature of events, where running after a stray dog can make the difference between living – for another day at least – and dying. These scenes are so convincing that I wonder if they might be based on eyewitness accounts. The novel is well worth reading for this section alone.

The cyclical nature of the narrative can be repetitive or rhythmic. Which it is probably depends on the reader and/or the reader’s mood. Sometimes arriving at the same place yet again borders on the tedious; on one occasion the author writes ‘Darkness, and so on’, instead of the usual ‘Darkness fell’, leading me to wonder if she herself was getting a little weary at that point. Ursula is by far the dominant character, since she is the central figure in every cycle, whereas some of the secondary characters appear in only one of the lives and are never seen again. Those secondary characters who are recurring figures, such as Ursula’s immediate family, are developed into distinct personalities. It would be difficult to confuse Ursula’s brothers Maurice and Teddy, for example.

I have to say that I was not much taken with the central premise of living one’s life over and over again until one ‘gets it right’. What counts as ‘getting it right’? Living as long as possible? As happily as possible? What if the other people involved have a different idea of ‘getting it right’? And so on. On the other hand, ignoring the value judgment implied in ‘getting it right’, it’s interesting to watch events play out in different ways as Ursula encounters different people and situations. In a few cases she consciously influences events by taking a definite action or making a different decision, seemingly based on a hazy recollection of one of her other lives, though for the most part it seems that the changes in her various lives happen without her having to do anything.

Beautifully written tale with an unusual cyclical structure, memorable mainly for the dramatic sequences set in the London Blitz during the Second World War.

30 July, 2015

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris. Book review

Arrow 2014. ISBN 978-0-09-958088-1. 610 pages.

Set mainly in France in 1895-1899, this is a retelling in fiction of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a notorious miscarriage of justice that saw army officer Alfred Dreyfus wrongfully imprisoned on Devil’s Island for crimes he had never committed. All the characters are historical figures.

In Paris, in January 1895, Major Georges Picquart watches as army officer Alfred Dreyfus, convicted in a military court of selling secrets to Germany, is ritually degraded in front of a howling crowd before being sent to life imprisonment in appalling conditions on Devil’s Island. Picquart’s report on the event for the Minister of War results in his promotion to Colonel and appointment as head of the ‘Statistical Section’ – the army’s counter-espionage unit. Picquart does not want the job, but is determined to do it thoroughly. Soon his work shows that there is still a spy in the French army trying to sell classified material to the German embassy. As Picquart follows the threads and gathers more evidence, he discovers proof that Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and the real spy is still at large. But his superiors in the army and the government are far more concerned with covering up their own failings in the original investigation than in correcting a miscarriage of justice, or even the protection of their country’s secrets. If Picquart continues his investigation, the threat is clear – the establishment will close ranks to destroy him as they destroyed Dreyfus.

An Officer and a Spy is a tense psychological thriller. The narrative is consistently gripping as events twist and turn, and the atmosphere of corruption and menace is as all-pervading as the stink from the Paris sewers. At its heart is the dilemma faced by Picquart, a man of integrity who finds that the institution to which he has devoted his life is corrupt at its highest levels. Does he go along with the corruption and lose his self-respect?  Or does he follow his conscience, try to pursue justice, and lose his career, his position in society, his livelihood and his freedom, and perhaps also destroy the lives of people he loves? Many aspects of the Dreyfus Affair have modern parallels, and this gives the novel a powerful feel of immediacy.

An Officer and a Spy follows the historical events of the Dreyfus Affair faithfully. The Author’s Note at the beginning says ‘None of the characters in the pages that follow, even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life’. Although I had vaguely heard of the Dreyfus Affair before reading An Officer and a Spy, it was mostly in the context of Emile Zola’s famous ‘J’accuse...!’ letter. I had never heard of Georges Picquart before, even though it seems that Picquart was the key figure – Zola’s letter essentially gave a push to a something that Picquart had already begun, and without Picquart’s testimony the truth would never have come to light. I also had not realised the discrepancy between the original offence – the ‘secrets’ for which Dreyfus was wrongly imprisoned in such inhuman conditions were actually rather minor – and the astonishing scale of the cover-up.

An Officer and a Spy does a masterly job of shaping a complex sequence of events and reversals over several years into a coherent narrative whose pace never flags. It is recounted throughout in first-person present tense by Picquart, whose character is key to the whole novel. Picquart as portrayed here is an admirable character, driven not by any particular sentiment or regard for Dreyfus, nor even (at least initially) by any high-flown ideals of truth and justice, but by a steady professional determination to do his job thoroughly and honestly (and later, also by a desire for revenge on the army for their treatment of a woman he cares for). The other characters are deftly drawn with a few bold strokes, so that even though there is not much demographic diversity in the cast – they are almost all middle-aged Frenchmen and most of them are army officers – they emerge as distinct individuals. I am afraid that most of the army does not come out of the novel with much credit (except General Leclerc, provincial commander in North Africa) but being on the wrong side of the narrative does not prevent them being portrayed with sympathy and understanding, particularly Picquart’s adversary Major Henry.

The writing style is clear and unfussy, and the 600-odd pages pass effortlessly. I normally dislike present-tense narratives, but it is a testament to the quality of the writing that after a few pages I had ceased to notice it.

Taut, gripping thriller retelling the Dreyfus Affair, carried by the admirable central character and with a disturbing number of modern parallels.

30 June, 2015

Semper Fidelis, by Ruth Downie. Book review

Bloomsbury 2013. ISBN 978-1-60819-709-5. 330 pages

Semper Fidelis is the fifth of the Ruso mysteries, following Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (US title Medicus), Ruso and the Demented Doctor (US title Terra Incognita), Ruso and the Root of All Evils (US title Persona Non Grata), and Ruso and the River of Darkness (US title Caveat Emptor).  It is set in 122 AD in Eboracum (modern York) during the visit of Emperor Hadrian to the Roman province of Britannia. Emperor Hadrian and Empress Sabina are historical figures and important secondary characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Roman Army surgeon Gaius Petreius Ruso and his British wife Tilla are visiting the near-deserted legionary fortress of Eboracum, ostensibly to inspect the medical facilities before the fortress is handed over to its new garrison, but in reality to avoid the frantic preparations in Deva (modern Chester) for the Emperor Hadrian’s official visit. Ruso is hoping for an uneventful trip, as Eboracum is currently home only to a few ageing legionaries training a group of about 50 British legionary recruits. But on the day he arrives, one of the recruits commits suicide by jumping from the roof of the headquarters building, and it soon becomes clear that other recruits have died in sinister circumstances. Ruso’s attempt to investigate is met by a wall of official silence and outright lies. Tilla finds some of the answers among the recruits’ civilian wives and girlfriends – answers that no-one in authority wants to hear. As Ruso and Tilla uncover more of the sordid truth, the obstructionism gives way to threats and violence. Will they be able to stay alive, let alone to get justice for the recruits?

Like its predecessors, Semper Fidelis draws on the cultural conflicts between the world of the British tribes, represented by Tilla, and the Roman world, represented by Ruso and the various officials of the Roman army and administration. It maintains the characteristic attractive dry humour of the rest of the series, perhaps with a darker tone, as Ruso, an intelligent and decent man, tries to navigate organisational stupidity, official corruption, the demands of his family in Gaul, and the bewildering behaviour of humanity in general.

For me, the appeal of the Ruso series lies in the characters and their relationships, with the mystery tending to be secondary. Semper Fidelis is no exception; there is a mystery, or two, successfully resolved, but it is not so much a ‘whodunit’ as a ‘what-to-do-about-it’. Ruso and Tilla find out most of what is going on in Eboracum quite quickly. The main dilemmas they face are in trying to decide what actions they can take that might have a chance of improving the situation, preferably without destroying themselves or others in the process. As Tilla says at one point, Ruso is ‘a good man in a bad place’. The easiest and personally safest course would be to shrug and ignore the problem. But both Tilla and Ruso have an active conscience and a strong moral code – remarkably similar, despite their different cultural backgrounds – that will not let them stand idly by without at least trying to get some semblance of justice. This was the core of the novel for me – will they succeed, and what will the attempt cost them?

The secondary characters are vivid and lively. Ruso’s irresponsible and charming colleague Valens makes a brief but important reappearance, as does the sinister secret security officer Metellus. New characters include the aristocratic tribune Accius, who turns out to be more interesting than he first appears, and the vivacious but airheaded Virana, who will probably return in the next book to exasperate Tilla further if the ending is anything to go by.

A brief Author’s Note at the end outlines some of the background of Hadrian’s visit to Britain, and a map at the front is helpful for readers unfamiliar with the geography of Roman Britain. There’s also the usual witty character list at the front, worth reading in its own right although the characters were so distinctive I never needed to refer to it.

Entertaining historical mystery with darker themes of injustice and abuse of power, told with wry humour.

31 May, 2015

The Invisible Woman: the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, by Claire Tomalin. Book review

Penguin 1991. ISBN 978-0-140-12136-0. 283 pages

The Invisible Woman is a historical biography of Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, a not-very-famous actress in Victorian London who had a close relationship with the writer Charles Dickens for thirteen years from 1857 to his death in 1870. It is also the story of Nelly’s mother and two older sisters, all professional actresses; of Nelly’s husband and children in the second life she built after Dickens’ death; and of the detective work required for the author to rediscover the story after the valiant attempts made by Nelly, Dickens and their families and associates to obliterate all evidence of their association.

I enjoyed this book very much more than I expected to. Although Nelly Ternan’s relationship – whatever it was – with Dickens is what she is now famous for and the reason The Invisible Woman was written, it turns out to be one of the least interesting things in a full and varied life. Nelly Ternan went from an impoverished child actress earning a precarious living touring provincial theatres with her two sisters and redoubtable widowed mother, to a well-off if not entirely respectable lady, to the popular wife of a provincial schoolmaster. Her two sisters, Frances (Fanny) and Maria, lived even more unorthodox lives. Fanny was by turns an actress, singer, teacher, novelist and biographer, and successfully made the Jane Eyre transition from governess to respected married lady. Maria left her businessman husband to earn her own living in Italy as an artist, journalist and foreign correspondent, travelling to Egypt and North Africa. All this in an age when women were expected to be entirely passive, dependent and confined to the domestic sphere (as exemplified by most of Dickens’ heroines).

The writing style in The Invisible Woman is clear, unfussy, lively and sympathetic without being sentimental. Nelly’s life is painstakingly pieced together from mere scraps of evidence – playbills, rates and rent records, obscure passing references, a diary so abbreviated it could almost be written in code – because Nelly, Dickens and their respective families went to considerable lengths to destroy all the letters and papers in their possession. Nelly herself deliberately created something close to a new identity for herself after Dickens’ death, taking twelve years off her age and hiding both her theatrical past and her association with Dickens from her husband and children. The result is a sort of cross between a biography and a scholarly detective story, as the author tracks Nelly from one fleeting appearance to the next, cross-referencing clues to build up a plausible picture. Numerous footnotes and references back up the statements in the text, and the author takes care to distinguish between evidence, inference and speculation.

The introductory chapters describing Nelly’s family background and her early life as a child performer, long before Dickens appeared in her life, are some of the most interesting in the book. This section forms a social history of the world of the professional theatre in Regency and Victorian England, a self-contained sub-culture with its own set of values and social norms. Women in the theatre were both expected and able to earn their own living independently of a man, and indeed the women in Nelly’s immediate family were frequently the primary breadwinners, even when there was a man in the family. This independent earning capacity conferred some resilience, so Nelly’s mother was able to support herself and her three small daughters when her husband died of syphilis. Some successful actresses managed to attain a degree of personal freedom otherwise unheard-of in respectable Victorian society, such as being able to leave an unsatisfactory husband, live with a man outside of marriage, and bring up children on their own. But it carried a price in terms of financial insecurity – even very successful actresses often died in poverty after they became too old to work – and in exclusion from and the disapproval of polite society. Two young actresses living in the theatre district could all too easily be mistaken for a different kind of working girl and subjected to police harassment with the threat of arrest and ruin, and for a lovely young actress touring in Ireland the risk of abduction and rape by an unscrupulous aristocrat was considered an occupational hazard. All three of the Ternan sisters ruthlessly suppressed their theatrical past when marriage allowed them entry into polite society. This was a fascinating glimpse into a world I knew almost nothing about, and The Invisible Woman was well worth reading for this alone.

There is an extensive bibliography for anyone who wants to follow up source material for themselves, and a detailed index for reference.

Clear, lively, sympathetic and scholarly biography of the unorthodox lives of Nelly Ternan and her sisters, combined with an illuminating social history of the Victorian theatrical world.