Little by Edward Carey

I read a sample of the first few pages of Little by Edward Carey (see the link below) and immediately wanted to read more.

Gallic Books usually translate and publish French novels under their Gallic imprint, however I could see exactly why this historical novel, written by the English novelist and playwright Edward Carey, set in the late 1700’s France, would be a worthy addition to their collection and so I requested a copy which to my delight was sent to me soon after. Even before reading it, I was recommending it to friends, some of whom have finished it, so it rose to the top of the pile and Voila, here are my thoughts on it!

It’s a wonderful read, following the extraordinary life of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born in 1761 in a small country village in Switzerland, who must move to the city of Berne with her fragile, easily frightened, recently widowed mother, to work for a young, reclusive, eccentric Doctor Curtius, a home-based medic obsessed with anatomy and the physiology of the body, who creates replica body parts copying those that the hospital delivers him, reproducing them in wax.

The mother too faint-hearted to cope with the thought of having to assist him, it is left to six-year-old Marie, to be the strong one, to learn the required skills so she becomes his servant, and his first model, for a complete head, a plaster mould filled with wax. When the wax heads are sought out by men who desire to see themselves on display, the hospital turns against him and they flee to Paris, where a journalist who had once visited them befriends them and finds lodgings with an overbearing tailor’s widow and her meek son Edmond.

At first their work has no connection, but the widow is an astute businesswoman and soon takes control of the Doctor’s affairs moving them to larger premises on a main boulevard where their business will become a leading attraction in Paris. They recreate both the noble and the demons of the city, the murderers, who they believe by putting on show might teach people what to avoid.

Marie is not liked by the widow and is banned from the workshop as the widow inserts herself into the life and work of the Doctor, but secretly she has been making a few mini wax models of her own and thus her fate will change once again, when the reigning King Louis XVI’s sister Elisabeth comes knocking unannounced and it is Marie who answers the door.

She will spend eleven years in the palace of Versailles as tutor (Maitresse de Cire) to her princess friend, until her confidence and boredom combine to get her in trouble and she is banished, back to the widow and her master. This transgression may well have saved her life, given what was to come with French royalty.

The novel tracks her life and beside it the growing unrest in Paris, as the people rebel against those who ‘have’, against those who ‘rule’, and a frenzy of imprisonments and executions pervade the city, where no one is safe from denunciation and possible death. These stories and the historical references bring the novel alive, in animated prose that explores the noble alongside the grim and ghoulish, for the public of the time desired to see and know it all.

Marie is a survivor, and through all kinds of circumstances, she not only survives, she adds to her skills and is destined to thrive, despite the inordinate amount of suffering and tragedy she witnesses and bears.

Never entirely safe, being a foreigner in a land where favour swings swiftly and justice had a penchant for heads, she eventually leaves Paris and an ill-chosen husband Tussaud, taking one of her sons, to live out her thriving middle and old age in London, creating there, what was no longer sustainable in Paris, a wax museum of the rich, famous and infamous. At the age of 81, eight years before her death, she created her own wax self-portrait, which continues to reside in the museum today.

Edward Carey was terrified by her wax museum as a child, worked there as an adult, and has now written a novel about Tussaud, who survived the bloody French Revolution and built her own myth in London. The Guardian

With so many changes occurring in their lives, and so many characters of varying class and esteem entering their premise and the inevitable difficulties of being the unwanted additional child in an already complex household, it’s no wonder the chapters and years fly by, full of intriguing accounts of the lives of all those who had cause to come within Marie’s purview.

A brilliant, absorbing read of an incredibly resilient child, who becomes a skillful, industrious, entrepreneurial woman, with the addition of many pencil drawings throughout, just as we imagine she might have done them. Highly recommended for those who enjoy excellent historical fiction about women raising themselves up despite immense challenges in their social status and background.

‘In an age in which historical female figures have gained more posthumous recognition, Little is a perfectly weaved story of a woman who has captured the imagination of many, but has been written about by few. From Marie’s perspective, the difficulties 18th Century women faced in order to achieve recognition or success are illuminated for the modern reader.’ — Culture Trip

Read a Sample from Little

Click Image to Read Sample

Buy a copy of Little from Book Depository here

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

As soon as I read the premise for this historical novel, I knew I wanted to read it. A tale that travels from Iceland to Algiers, inspired by a true story, one that acknowledges the power of imagination and oral storytelling from within different cultures.

Described as The Turkish Raid or Tyrkjaránið, the inspiration for the novel is based on the invasion of Iceland in 1627 by pirates from Algeria and Morocco, also known as Barbary pirates (a reference to the Barbary coast, a term used by Europeans in the 16th century, referring to the coastal aspect of the collective lands of the Berber people of North Africa). They were lead by the ambitious and cunning Dutch captain Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, commonly known as Murat Reis the Younger, himself captured and “turned Turk”.

They were referred to as Turks, as Algeria was then part of the expansive Ottoman Empire. Icelandic villagers were abducted, and taken by ship to be sold as slaves in Algiers, a request for a ransom was made to the Danish King, and a few would make it back home.

Relative to its size, Iceland, the furthest north the corsairs reached, was hit particularly hard. To lose four hundred people out of a population of around forty thousand – including most of the island of Heimaey – is by any standards a stupendous national tragedy, particularly for what was at the time the poorest country in Europe. That may be one reason why Iceland has kept painfully in its collective psyche what has largely faded from the memory of other affected nations. It may also be down to the Icelandic compulsion to write. Voluminous historical narratives were written afterwards and copied by hand. It was felt important that the nation’s great trauma should be understood and never forgotten.

The Sealwoman’s Gift follows one family, Ólafur the local pastor, his relatively younger wife Asta and two of their children, all of whom are abducted, the mother due to give birth, which she does on the ship. Initially Ólafur is herded onto a different ship, perhaps due to his advanced age, however he manages to fight his way to his wife and children, allowed to do so while others are struck down for such defiance, when his ability to calm the captives is noted by the Captain.

They voyage across the sea to Algiers where their fate awaits them. While on the ship, one of the islanders Oddrún – affectionately referred to as the sealwoman, due to her insistent belief that she was a seal who came ashore and had her sealskin stolen, forcing her to remain human – has a dream, another shared prophecy, words that are usually ignored, but given their predicament and desire for escape, are this time listened to attentively.

‘I have seen Ólafur in a great palace. He is kneeling before the king.’

She also has words for Asta, referring to Gudrún, the female character in the Icelandic myth, the 13th century Laxdaela saga.

‘Do not do as Gudrún did’

It’s not possible to write too much about what happens without spoiling the discovery for the reader, suffice to say that poverty-stricken conservative Christian Icelanders arriving in the warm, lush climate of Algiers, where, although they are enslaved, many will live in ways less harsh than what they have experienced in freedom, and children will be both born and grow up within a culture and religion unlike their home country, one that some will embrace, others will defy, awaiting the response of their king to the request for a ransom.

Those that return, in turn, face the dilemma of reacclimatising to their culture and way of life, so different to what they have experienced, the memories of their time of enslavement never far from their thoughts and the judgments of those who were not caught felt in a wayward glance.

How could she have forgotten, how could she possibly not have remembered, what it is like to live for month after month with only a few watery hours of light a day,  with cold that seeps into your bones and feet that are always wet? Is it conceivable that she never noticed before how foul the habits are here?…

Can she not have noticed how the turf walls bend in on you and bear down on you until you are desperate to break out and breathe again? Only there is no roof to escape to here but just gabled grass, and the wind would toss you off it anyway if it did not freeze you first. To think she spent more than thirty winters in a house like this, yet only now is oppressed by the way the stinking fulmar oil in the lamp mingles with the stench of the animals and the meat smoking over the kitchen fire and the ripe sealskin jackets on their hook, making her sick with longing for the tang of mint and cumin and an atrium open to the sky.

While much of the Reverend Ólafur Egillson’s story is known from journals he kept, that have been transcribed and translated and kept his story and that of the islanders alive, not much is known of the fate of his wife Asta while she was captive, an interlude that the author immerses herself in through the imagination. A fragment of engraved stone is all that remains to commemorate the life of this woman who lived an extraordinary life, the details of which she took with her to the grave.

‘History can tell us no more than it does about any woman of the time in Iceland or anywhere else, unless she happened to be a queen.’

Overall, this story provides a thrilling depiction of the terror of a pirate invasion that changed the lives of 400 islanders from Iceland, their journey across seas to Algiers, the slave markets and fates of those who survived, their children and an imagining of how they may have coped as they watched their youth grow up and become part of another culture and way of life, while older Icelanders struggled with what they retained within them of their past and the changes that would envelope them in the years that followed, in a strange new land, one that despite their suffering, also offered opportunities they would never have encountered at home.

Buy a copy now via Book Depository

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Note: Thank you to the publisher Two Roads, for providing a review copy.

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi tr. Darryl Sterk

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-yi, is one of the long listed titles for the Man Booker International 2018.

He is one of Taiwan’s most well-known authors and this is his fifth novel, the second to be translated into English. It won rave reviews in Taiwan, and the Taiwan Literary Award, following its Chinese-language release in 2016.

The narrator is the second son of a family, who desperately wanted a boy and finally had one after 5 girls. When the first son was born, the father decided there were too many girls, and almost adopted one out to a family member, events that lead up to the theft of his first bicycle.

With an extra mouth to feed, the family could barely scrape a living, and my father, who now had the son he’d always wanted, decided that five girls in the house was one too many, one more than had been allotted by fate.

However, it was a later Taiwanese ‘Lucky’ branded bike that would send the narrator off on a mission to follow all leads and meet all kinds of people, discovering many aspects of his culture and some of its history in trying track it down, the bike that disappeared along with its rider, his father. This obsession with antique bicycles takes the narrator and readers alike on a voyage deep into aspects of Taiwan’s 20th-century history and culture.

And that was how it started: my obsession with antique bicycles flowed from my missing father.

Each new encounter takes us on a new journey, as that person reveals something of their past and their knowledge of these ‘iron horses’, in fact much of the book is written as Bike Notes 1, Bike Notes II, complete with illustrations of the different era bicycles, including the infamous Japanese war bike, the ‘Silverwheel’ and the notorious ‘Silverwheel Squad’.

The worst headache was the Silverwheel Squad. The Silverwheels traced the upper reaches of rivers and rode down into the jungle to launch one surprise attack after another.

In this way, the story meanders and diverges and then hooks into a subject and follows it a long way down its tributary, only to return and take another turn, meet another collector, owner, person, and even a long-lived elephant, who knows or might have known the owner, whom the narrator will meet and solicit their story patiently awaiting the moment they might reveal the connection to the bike, that might lead to his father.

The author uses conversation, flash backs of memory, war diaries, memoir and voice recordings to create a network of literary tributaries in bringing together this ambitious, far-reaching narrative that touches so many unique aspects of Taiwan’s history, culture, development and influences.

In the beginning these diversions are interesting and promising and somewhat intriguing, they are indeed historically significant as they reveal something of the life and influences of the era in which they occurred, especially around the time of the war, seeing it from the perspective of Taiwan and Japan, especially as war involved bicycle strategy and elephants, and we learn something about the work habits of a woman creating butterfly handcrafts and how her father learned to lure butterflies en masse to capture them.

However, I admit I became somewhat fatigued by the never-ending meandering, the prolonged encounters and diversions, to the point where I began to lose interest, despite avidly not wishing to. That could have been due to the length of the book, or perhaps that it is indeed a book of obsession, not quite to the same degree as Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, but with something of a similar feel, in the way the reader is pulled along on the journey, not quite sure of the destination. Or perhaps it is because of how ambitious a book it is, in covering so much that is unfamiliar, opening so many threads.

It’s clear that the author very much enjoyed putting this novel together, so much so he shares some of his writing philosophy at the end of the book, and I find myself somewhat forgiving him for having drawn out his story so, although I understand how he has lost less patient readers along the way.

Wu Ming Yi

For some, life experiences drive the writing process. But for me writing novels is a way of getting to know, and of thinking about, human existence. I’m just a regular guy who has, through writing, come to understand things I couldn’t have before, concerning human nature and emotion. I write because I don’t see the world clearly. I write out of my own unease and ignorance. The ancient Greek historian Polybius put it thus: ‘The most instructive thing is remembering other people’s calamities. To stoically accept the vagaries of fate, this is the only way.’ I write novels to know how to stoically accept the vagaries of fate.

And his final words, appreciated all the more by this reader, having made it to the end.

The only necessity is to keep pedalling – quietly, composedly, no matter how thirsty you are or how difficult it may be.

To buy a copy of The Stolen Bicycle, click on the image below, my affiliate link at BookWitty.

Note: Thank you to Text Publishing for providing a review copy of the e-book to read.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

When I look back at my absolute favourite book of the year in recent years, there is a common theme running in which an author has written a story that comes from deep within their cultural heritage; it’s there in my favourite book of 2017 Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book that reaches back to the author’s Ghanaian heritage, in Simone Schwartz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond and in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. It’s even there in Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

This is what appealed to me immediately about the prospect of reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu. It promises to do the same thing, to take the reader from where we are at today in a culture and link it back to the past, from modern day Uganda to the era of when the region was ruled as a kingdom. And it succeeds brilliantly, in a way rarely seen in literature in the UK/US published today.

Kintu was discovered when a project called Kwani? launched a manuscript competition in 2012 to discover the best unpublished novels  by writers from across Africa, and to publish them for readers there. Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s excellent Stay With Me, was one of seven manuscripts shortlisted, it also went on to make the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017.

About the Kwani? project, one of the judges, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey said:

What we looked for as judges were manuscripts that told stories from the inside without the burden of focusing on how an imagined ‘West’ would view them.

As a result of winning that prize Kintu was published by Kwani Trust (in Kenya) before being offered to international publishers. It was published in the US (Transit Books) and the UK (One World Publications) and in March 2018 Jennifer Makumbi learned she was a recipient of a prestigious Windham Campbell Prize for Literature worth US$165,000. She is working on her second novel.

My Review:

1750 Buddu Province, Buganda

Kintu is the name of a clan, the original clan elder Kintu Kidda fell in love with Nnakato, an identical twin (the younger) and her family refuse to allow him to marry her unless he married her sister Babirye first. He refused. They resisted. He relented.

Kintu’s mind lingered on the primal conflict that led to a soul splitting into twins. No matter how he looked at it, life was tragic. If the soul is at conflict even at this remotest level of existence, what chance do communities have? This made the Ganda custom of marrying female identical twins to the same man preposterous. It goes against their very nature, Kintu thought. Twins split because they cannot be one, why keep them as such in life? Besides, identical men did not marry the same woman.

Babirye gave him four sets of twins while Nnakato was unable to conceive. When the twins, raised as if they belonged to Nnakto were adults, Nnakato finally gave birth to a son Baale. They adopted a baby boy Kalema, from Ntwire a widower who was passing through their lands, who decided to stay in gratitude to Kintu and Nnakto for raising his son in their family.

When tragedy occurs, Kintu tries to conceal it, Ntwire suspects something and places a curse on Kintu, his family and their future descendants.

The novel is structured into Book One to Book Six, the first five books focus on different strands of the Kintu clan, the first book being the original story of Kintu Kidda and his family in the 1700’s (pre-colonial era) and the latter stories are set in modern times, colonial interlopers have left their imprint, however this is not their story nor a story of their influence, except to note the impact on the kingdom.

After independence, Uganda – a European artefact – was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabuku Mutees II was made president of the new Uganda. Nonetheless, most of them felt that ‘Uganda’ should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kubuka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabuka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecration of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.

Each beginning of the six parts/books however narrates over a few pages, something of the story of a man named Kamu Kintu, who is seized from his home, hands tied behind his back and taken away for questioning by a group of local councillors. Overhearing someone mutter the word thief, an angry mob of villagers menace him without knowledge of the reason for his being detained and he is killed, left for dead on the road, the men who’d requested he come with them fleeing. What subsequently happens to every one of those councillors is equally mysterious, creating a thread of mystery that both links and separates the family stories that make up the novel.

We don’t find out who Kamu Kintu is or how he is connected to the families we encounter in each part, until Book Six, where the threads that tie the clan together begin to connect in the enthralling homecoming.

Throughout each family and over the years certain aspects replicate throughout the families, the presence of twins, premature death, as if the curse that was muttered so long ago continues to reverberate through each generation. Some of them are aware of the curse, remembering the story told by their grandmothers, others haven’t been told the truth of their origins, in the hope that ignorance might absolve them.

Her grandmother’s story had intruded on her again. All day at work, the story, like an incessant song, had kept coming and going. Now that she was on her way home, Suubi gave in and her grandmother’s voice flooded her mind.

Some are haunted by ghosts of the past, thinking themselves not of sound mind, particularly when aspects of their childhood have been hidden from them, some have prophetic dreams, some have had a foreign university education and try to sever their connections to the old ways, though continue to be haunted by omens and symbols, making it difficult to ignore what they feel within themselves, that their mind wishes to reject. Some turn to God and the Awakened, looking for salvation in newly acquired religions.

It’s brilliant. We traverse through the lives of these families, witness their growth, development, sadness’ and joys, weaving threads of their connections together, that will eventually intersect and come to be understood and embraced by all as the clan is brought together to try to resolve the burden of the long-held curse that may have cast its long shadow over this clan for so many generations.

One of the things that’s particularly unique about the novel, is the contrast of the historical era, 1750’s with the modern era, the historical part shows the unique way of life before the arrival of Europeans, in all its richness and detail, how they live, the power structures, the preparation for the long journey to acknowledge a new leader, the protocols they must adhere to, the landscapes they traverse. An article in The Guardian notes twin historical omissions and concludes that the novel is the better for it:

Makumbi mostly avoids describing both the colonial period, which so often seems the obligation of the historical African novel, and Idi Amin’s reign, which seems the obligation of the Ugandan novel. Kintu is better for not retreading this worn ground.

It reminded me of the world recreated by the Guadeloupean-French-African writer, Maryse Condé, in her epic historical novel Segu, another African masterpiece, set in the 1700’s in the kingdom of Segu.

I hope the success of Kintu encourages other young writers from within the vast storytelling traditions of the many African countries to continue to tell their stories and that international publishers continue to make them available to the wider reading public, who are indeed interested in these lives, cultures, histories and belief systems of old that continue to resonate in the modern-day, despite political policies and power regimes that seem to want to change them.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Image from Martin Harris Centre via BrittlePaper.com

Further Reading

Brittle Paper: Essay – When We Talk about Kintu by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Africa In Words: Review – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘Kintu’ Made Me Want to Tell Our Stories by Nyana Kakoma

The East African: Article – Kintu’s ‘Africaness’ pays off for Jennifer Makumbi by Bamutaraki Musinguzi

The Guardian: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – is this ‘the great Ugandan novel’? by Lesley Nneka Arimah

 

Buy a copy of Kintu via BookDepository

Note: Thank you to the UK Publisher One World Publications for sending me a copy of the book.

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

I read My Name is Mary Sutter when it first came out and was utterly entranced by Robin Oliveira’s depiction of the character of Mary, a midwife intent on becoming a surgeon in an era where women were totally blocked from pursuing such a thing. She was unable to achieve her ideal through formal channels, so she went to war, the American civil war, and there had the kind of experience few would wish her, unless, like Mary, you were being excluded from pursuing your desired profession and were driven to break through irrational barriers by equally irrational means.

In her research, the author learned that 17 young women became physicians after their nursing experiences in the civil war. While Mary Sutter is fictional, she is a truly inspired character about whom Robin Oliveira had this is say:

“And through it all there was Mary Sutter, whose story I needed to tell as a celebration of women who seize the courage to live on, to thrive, to strive, even, when men conspire to war. Mary, flawed and intelligent, careening between desire and remorse, stumbling forward out of courage and stubbornness, hiding a broken heart, but hoping to redeem something beautiful from a life humbled by regret.”

Her second novel, set in Paris was the excellent I Always Loved You, reviewed here, is about the American painter Mary Cassatt, her life in Paris, struggling to make a name while remaining true to her art, and enduring a life-long fractious relationship with impressionist painter and sculptor Edgar Degas.

When asked what made her return, in this her third historical novel, to the character of Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira said:

Over the last few years, readers have often asked me to include Mary Sutter in a new book, but I could not think of a single circumstance that would challenge her as much as the obstacles she had faced in the Civil War. Then I learned about the age of consent. I simply couldn’t leave Mary Sutter out of it, for I had finally discovered something of equal importance for her to battle.

So now it is 1869 in Albany, New York, Mary Sutter is now Dr Mary Sutter Stipps, living in Albany, New York, where she practices in a local hospital, despite most of her male colleagues despising her (because she is a woman), she also runs a home practice with her husband William Stipp and a lesser known clinic, where a lantern is illuminated on Thursdays when she opens for ladies of the night, those who are refused treatment elsewhere.

These are the conservative years after the civil war, a period of tumultuous struggle and the emergence of women’s suffrage, meaning any freedoms women attempted to gain were often fiercely opposed and ridiculed. Mary faces opposition at every turn, but refuses to be cowered and will stand up for and insist on justice for what she believes is right and good.

On the evening this story begins, a severe winter blizzard disrupts the city, children are locked in schools for two days, businesses close, the Doctors house their patients overnight, and accidents occur – two days later as people begin to reappear, Mary learns of the deaths of close family friends, the hatmaker Bonnie and her labourer husband David and the unexplained disappearance of their daughters, Emma(10) and Claire(7).

Mary and William search for the girls everywhere, implore the police and their wider networks to help and eventually must accept they’ve gone.

At the graveside, they become acquainted with lumberlord Gerritt Van der Veer, his wife Viola, and their son Jakob. From that day on the lives of the two families become intertwined, as Mary continues her relentless pursuit of the lost girls, leading her to become exposed to the deep manipulations throughout the city and its powerful, by those out to benefit themselves who will do anything to stop those like her, trying to help and heal, without discrimination or judgement.

Book One sets up the story, introducing us to Elisabeth, Mary’s niece, a violin protegé who has been studying in Paris in the company of her grandmother Amelia, who swiftly return on hearing the terrible news, though laden with their own mysterious troubles.

Mary seeks the help of the women she’s met through the clinic, women who hear and see things she and Will would never come across, suspicions begin to arise, as they become aware of a man in hiding, injured on the night the ice cracks on the Hudson River, causing flash flooding across the city.

“I trust her Mother. She’s no opportunist. If she’d wanted money, she would have asked for it then, wouldn’t she have, if she intended to lie? And besides, none of that matters, does it, if we go looking ourselves. The brothels are the single place we haven’t looked. What harm can come from looking? I can’t understand why Captain Mantel refused. Oh damn him.The police know exactly where the brothels are. it would be easy for them.”

By Book Two the story has become riveting, complex, there are elements of the mystery to resolve, a pending court case, perceived betrayals, all set against the legal and societal background of the times they lived in, there are aspects of the law that will shock the reader, we read about the 1800’s and we are reminded of the similar treatment of victims today with regard to police procedure, questioning victims and the law that appears designed to protect the accused more than the victim.

It’s too good a read to give away anything more that happens from Book Two onwards, suffice to say I could not put this down, I was up late finishing it and thought it brilliantly woven together. It’s commentary on the hardships of women and girls, of all ages and from all classes is insightful and outrageous. Women are blocked in so many directions, in particular when they possess talent, controlled, commented on, kept by men in positions of power. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and these characters provide the faint glimmer of hope that gets us through the tough parts.

“He wanted to say, It’s either hide forever or see forever. He wanted to say, You need to choose. He wanted to say, Follow me, I’ll show you…

Every inch toward courage was a decision. Every ten feet on her own would be a triumph. The line between coercion and choice for her was the line between darkness and light. He would never push her, but she needed to choose to climb this hill. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have the courage to climb onto the witness stand or perhaps even to walk down a street on her own.”

Mary Sutter oversteps the demarcated line of acceptable professions for women, she breaks the mould, though not without challenge and William and Jakob show themselves to be different kind of men, demonstrating the potential of working alongside women, not excluding them.

The price women pay when they overstep that societal and male control, is the story of the Gilded Age, and continues to play out one hundred and fifty years later. Indeed, the changing role of women in society, and what men will accept, remains one of the essential conflicts of our time.

Highly recommended, one of the best historical novels of the year.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A Victorian era historical novel (London 1893) set over a single year, that follows the footsteps of the young widow Cora Seaborne, in the months following the premature of her husband, a cruel man who’d become indifferent to her, but one who’d been her companion from such a young age, he’d moulded her into what he could tolerate.

She begins to shed the layers of that stifled London life, both physically and mentally, taking her son Francis and their companion Martha to Colchester, swapping gowns and stays for a man’s tweed coat and trousers. She steps out each day taking herself on long walks in search of anything unusual and in particular remnants and fossilised objects unearthed after a recent earthquake and subsequent landslides.

In London, she had befriended Dr Luke Garret, affectionately referred to as the Imp on account of his size. He is at the forefront of medicine at the time, something of a maverick surgeon, fascinated by the potential of yet unproven surgical procedures, assisted by his friend and colleague Spencer. He is fond of Cora and their friendship continues after the death of her husband.

Katherine and Charles Ambrose, frequent visitors to Essex, unwittingly encouraged Cora’s interest in the region and in fossil remains, through various introductions, one of whom recounts to her the life and work of Mary Anning, the English fossil collector and paleontologist, whose discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton. Mary Anning is the protagonist of Lisa Chevalier’s excellent novel Remarkable Creatures.

Meeting her again in Colchester, the Ambrose’s introduce Cora to the Reverend William Ransome and his wife Stella and a unique friendship develops.

Much of the novel is narrated through letters between Cora and these new friends she’s made since her widowhood and one of the subjects that arises is talk of a creature, said to have reappeared since the land was disturbed by the quake, one they’ve dubbed the Essex Serpent. Local beggar Taylor fills her in on the details of the earthquake and the sleeping legend it has awakened.

‘It had come eight years back, by his reckoning, at eight minutes past nine precisely. It had been as fair an April morning as any could remember, which later was counted a blessing, since most were out-of-doors. The Essex earth had bucked as if trying to shake off all its towns and villages; for twenty seconds, no more, a series of convulsions that paused once as if a breath were being drawn and then began again. Out in the estuaries of the Colne and the Blackwater, the sea had gathered into foaming waves which ransacked the shore and reduced every vessel on the water to splinters.’

Cora is delighted to think that modest little Essex, with its Paleozoic rock beneath their feet, laid down five hundred million years before, shrugging its shoulders, creating waves and toppling church steeples and fantasizes about finding her own ichthyosaur.

Taylor feeds her mind with tales of a creature from 1669, when it was believed a serpent came out of the Essex waters into the birch woods and commons.

‘Those were the years of the Essex serpent, be it scale and sinew, or wood and canvas, , or little but the ravings of madmen; children were kept from the banks of the river and fishermen wished for a better trade! Then it was gone as soon as it came, and for night on two hundred years we had neither hide nor hair of it ’til the quake came and something was shook loose down there under the water – something was set free! A great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.’

Away from the responsibilities and expectations of womanhood and motherhood, long walks reawaken Cora’s naturalist and philosophical interests.

‘It struck her that everything under that white sky was made of the same substance – not quite animal, but not merely earth: where branches had sheared from their trunks they left bright wounds, and she would not have been surprised to see severed stumps of oak and elm pulse as she passed. Laughing, she imagined herself part of it, and leaning against a trunk in earshot of a chattering thrush held up her arm, and wondered if she might see vivid green lichen stippling the skin between her fingers.

Had it always been here – this marvellous black earth in which she sank to her ankles, this coral coloured fungus frilling the branches at her feet? Had birds always sung? Had the rain always this light touch, as if she might inhabit it?’

As Cora pursues fossils and sea creatures, her companion Martha uses the opportunity of having contact with influential men to push her social activism, intent on bringing to light the plight of the working class housing conditions, dire accommodations and landlords who continue to raise rents, not to mention hypocritical attitudes.

‘She spread open the pages and showed him a map on which the poorest of London’s housing was overlaid with plans for new developments. They would be sanitary , she said, and spacious: children would have green spaces to play in and tenants would be free from landlord caprice. But (she flicked contemptuously at the paper) to qualify for housing, tenants must demonstrate good character. ‘They’re expects to live better than you or I ever did to deserve a roof over their children’s heads: must never be drunk or a nuisance to neighbours, or gamble, and God forbid too many children by too many fathers, and had too often. You, Spencer – with your estate and pedigree – you can drink yourself wretched on claret and port and no-one begrudges you any of your homes; but spend what little you have on cheap beer and the dogs and you’ve not enough moral standing to sleep in a dry bed.’

The novel provides a snapshot of the era, with its significant scientific progress and discoveries, its social issues among the classes and between the sexes, medical progress and the conflict between men of science and men of the cloth.

For the most part I enjoyed it immensely, however, if I were to fault it, I thought the seesawing between relentless soul-searching and denial on the part of the Reverend and Cora, in coming to terms with their relationship became a little tedious. It made the second half of the novel drag a little and I notice that all the passages I noted come from the first 200 pages. However the acute sense of place and era and that traversing of issues of the time within the framework of of an engaging story make it all worthwhile.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

 

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious to me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.