The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

The Last Gods of Indochine is a fascinating work of historical fiction, covering two periods of history in a dual narrative, whose links eventually become clear in a surprising and unsuspecting conclusion.

The dual narrative follows firstly the journey of a young woman recovering from her role as a volunteer in World War I, who decides in 1921 to leave England and follow in her French grandfather’s footsteps to Cambodia. Afflicted by strange dreams that seem to relate to the area she is visiting, she tries to unravel their mystery and some of the things written in her grandfather’s journals that don’t initially appear to make sense.

While Jacquie Mouhot is a fictional character, her inspiration Henri Mouhot is a real historical figure, the first French explorer to rediscover the lost city of Angkor (though it hadn’t been forgotten in the region) and the grand monuments, whose temples, carvings and structure would reveal much about life during the 800 years (802-1431 AD) that the Khmer Empire was at its heights.

In the second narrative we meet Paaku and his teenage friend in 1294 Angkor, just before the beginning of the decline of the vast Khmer Empire and civilisation, a disappearance that mystified historians for many years, how a city of over 1 million inhabitants could disappear, its monuments and infrastructure reclaimed by the jungle, covered over as if it was never there.

Henri Mouhot’s tomb – Photo from 1989 by J.M. Strobino

Even the gravestone memorial to the explorer Henri Mouhot was reclaimed by the jungle, pierced by the insistent roots of a tree, and forgotten for many years; in recent years a new path has been created to try to resurrect it as a visiting place for travellers.

Events change the destiny of these two young men, highlighting the beliefs and vulnerabilities inherent within the culture at the time, that may have contributed to its demise.

For more about my thoughts on the novel and to read the article I wrote on the Rise and Fall of the Khmer Empire, you can visit The Bookbrowse Review.

The Last Gods of Indochine was nominated for the The Man Booker Asian Literary Prize, an award that sadly, has also disappeared.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher for review at Bookbrowse.com

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Gyasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

Click Here to Buy A Copy of

Homegoing via BookDepository

The Good People by Hannah Kent

good-people

Some of you may know of the author Hannah Kent, whose debut novel Burial Rites, set in Iceland, became a popular bestseller. I never did get around to reading it, though I would still like to, and it was for that reason I was intrigued to pick up this, her second historical novel, set in Ireland during the early 1800’s.

The Good People centres around the lives of three Irish country women, Nora, who has recently become a widow in the same year her daughter passed away, Mary, the teenage housemaid she employs to help her take care of a 4-year-old cripple, the grandson her son-in-law left with her; and Nance, an ageing spinster who lives in a mud shack on the edge of the forest, the one with “the knowledge” whom certain members of the community go to when the remedies of the doctor and the priest yield no cure.

Nora has not consulted Nance before, though her husband Martin had. She is wary of others and their superstitions so keeps the boy hidden from their prying eyes, lest they connect his condition to the string of bad luck in the community, for there are some saying he has ‘the fairy in him’, that he was a changeling, as if possessed.

changeling-pj-lynch

‘A Changeling’ by illustrator & Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature, PJ Lynch – http://www.pjlynchgallery.com

In Irish folklore, people believed that fairies (Irish fairies appear to be a lot more sinister than the Disney kind) could entice or abduct a child away, leaving a malformed substitute (fairy) in its place, recognisable due to its ugly appearance, ill-health, bad temper and old world look of knowledge in their eyes. There were a number of ‘cures’ that might be applied to ‘sweep’ out the fairy and restore the child.

The novel follows the events that occur during the time Mary stays with Nora, as the widow increasingly begins to doubt the child is her grandson and treats “it” as if he were a changeling and Nance’s ways are denounced by the new priest.

‘I have been told you make it your trade to cry at burials.’

‘What is the harm in that?’

‘Your sorrow is artificial, Nance. Rather than comfort those who are afflicted, you live upon their dead.’

Nance shook her head. ‘I do not, Father. That’s not it at all. I feel their sorrow. I give voice to the grief of others when they have not a voice for it themselves.’

The novel immerses the reader deep into the folklore of 19th century Ireland, portraying many of its characters and the community around them as believers of those ancient ways, practitioners of protective rituals, despite the existence of more rational medicines and beliefs.

‘That’s right. Lights. Coming from here the fairies do be, down by the Piper’s Grave,’ Peter continued. Now I might not have the full of my eyes, but I swear I saw a glowing by that whitethorn. You mark my words, there’ll be another death in this family before long.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company. And if the Good People had a hand in it… well.’

The old ways brush up against the new and culminate in a challenge of one versus the other through the justice system.

Clearly, an extraordinarily well-researched novel, based on certain real events, it succeeds in creating an authentic sense of place, inside the very primitive home of Nora imbued with a strong sense of dread that this is not going to end well. We are shown how things came to be for all three characters and the reactions of the community around them, quick to fear and to judge.

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

What it really excels at, is to make the reader wonder what is real and what is not, after the rejection of the doctor and the priest, we understand how the maid and the widow want desperately to believe in the knowledge of Nance and her alternative “cure”, providing a fascinating insight into a cultural folklore that had much of its community in its grip (and some say does still).

Despite this authenticity, I found it lagged in the mid-section, as Nance’s back story was filled in, causing me to lose interest in picking the book up for a while. It picked up again as the author returned to moving the plot forward. It’s a book, that despite its flaws is likely to generate interesting discussions, of those ancient rituals and beliefs and the cases that became well-known, of cures gone wrong.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

(Excerpt from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B Yeats)

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

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

In 2016 I read Nayomi Munaweera’s second novel What Lies Between Us and it was one of my Top Reads of 2016, a novel of a young woman trying to adjust to a new life in a new country, though still haunted by both the beauty and deeply buried tragedy of her past, her childhood in Sri Lanka.

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors similarly evokes the childhoods and family life of two families living in the same house. The house is owned by the matriarch Sylvia Sumethra and her husband The Judge, who are Sinhala people (an Indo-Aryan ethnic group originally from northern India, now native to and forming the majority (75%) of the population of Sri Lanka, mostly Buddhist) and upstairs they rent to an extended Tamil family (a culturally and linguistically distinct ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, mostly Hindu).

It is a time when they live side by side in relative peace, although there are prejudices and intolerances at the adult level, attitudes that are initially not understood by children. Multiple generations of children will grow up and some of them will be capable of bridging those differences, until violence, heartache and tragedy taint them.

Sylvia’s daughter Visaka grows up in the house and develops a fearful crush on the son of the family upstairs, later when she is married and gives birth to one of our narrators, her daughter Yasodhara too will befriend Shiva, the next generation son of the same family living upstairs.

Her father Nishan is a twin, the lighter skinned one, his sister Mala, despaired of by her mother Beatrice when she was young, perceived as being unlikely to marry, to be rejected because of her skin tone, finds love without the interference of her family, something of a scandal.

There is silence and then the familiar smack of Beatrice Muriel’s palm against her forehead. “A love marriage,” she says. In her opinion, love marriages border on the indecent. They signify a breakdown of propriety, a giving in to the base instincts exhibited by the lower castes and foreigners. She believes marriages are too important to be relegated to the randomness of chance meetings and hormonal longings. They must be conducted with precision, calculated by experts, negotiated by a vast network of relations who will verify the usual things: no insanity in the family, evidence of wealth and fertility, the presence of benevolent stars.

An old photograph reminds Yasodara of the moment she was forced to recognise the age-old prejudices that infiltrate families, that perpetuated the myth that she and her friend Shiva were different.

We had been talking in our own shared language, that particular blur of Sinhala, Tamil and English much like what our mothers used in the early days, when suddenly my grandmother, her attention telescoped on us, pins him like an insect. Her iced voice, incredulous, “Are you teaching my granddaughter Tamil?” Her hand smashing hard across his cheek. He rips his hand from mine, turns to run. The camera in my father’s hand clicks shut.

When violence enters the town and the soldiers come knocking, their world turns upside down, and both families leave. Yasodara and her family will move to America and start over.

In Part Two we meet Saraswathi, the eldest daughter of a Tamil family in the northern war zone of Sri Lanka. Her family have already lost two brothers to war, and they live in fear of losing a third or worse, something terrible happening to the girls. Sara and her sister are still in school, she hopes to become a teacher, but there are white van abductions, despicable acts of violence and lynchings which put stress on the family. There is pressure to join the Tamil Tigers, a militant group fighting for independence.

There are roofless, bombed-out houses with bullet-splattered walls and empty, eyeless rooms everywhere. I hate these houses, they look like dead bodies or like mad people, laughing through their openmouthed doorways. I want to know what this place looked like before, when all the houses were whole, when people lived in them and cared about them and grew vegetables in front of them, flowers even.

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Munaweera writes exquisitely of the island of Sri Lanka, in lyrical prose that takes the reader inside the family experiences, evoking all the senses, the aroma of the cuisine, the fear and excitement of young, forbidden love, the pain of heartbreak, the palpable tension as sisters walk to school, sometimes witnessing images that will stain their minds and revisit their dreams for years.

Through the forced changes political events put on the families, we become witness to the struggle to adapt, in some the nostalgia for the past will lead them back there, in others, it is as if it never was, they have banished nostalgia and reminiscing from their minds and will do all they can to keep it from their children, not realising that they too will grow up and question their parents origins and be curious to know that part of themselves that provokes questions by others, highlighting the obvious, gaping hole in their identity.

I knew it would be good, it is a prize winning novel and deservedly so, it is endearing, evocative and sensual, touching on both the best of humanity and it’s most despicable, unpalatable horrors and the effect that exposure to those horrors can have on the innocent.

Brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Buy one of Nayomi Munaweera’s Books at Book Depository

The Captive Wife by Fiona Kidman

Fiona Kidman is a New Zealand novelist, poet and script writer, whose most recent novel The Infinite Air a novel of the life of the aviator Jean Batten, I reviewed earlier this year.

Although she has published over 20 books, she is relatively little known outside Australia and New Zealand, however recently her novels have begun to be published in the UK by Gallic Books, who translate a number of excellent French authors into English, and now with their new imprint Aardvark Bureau, are bringing novels originally written in English, but from countries outside the UK and US, their aim to bring an eclectic selection of the best writing from around the world.

aardvarkOne of my favourite reads from 2015 was the Aardvark published novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr and in early 2017, they will publish Fiona Kidman’s novel Songs From the Violet Café.

The Captive Wife isn’t a recent novel, just one I had on the shelf, it was originally published in 2005 and I was reminded of it after reading Jeremy Gavron’s memoir, A Woman on the Edge of Time, as his mother, who is the subject of his memoir, also wrote a book called The Captive Wife, though quite a different volume to Fiona Kidman’s.

The Captive Wife is set in the 1830’s, spanning ten years from 1832 -1843 and is based around the lives of two women, one the young Betty Guard and the other her school teacher Adeline Malcolm, whom Betty takes as her confidant, to share what exactly happened to her and her children, when they were taken captive on the shores of New Zealand, during one of their frequent visits.

In narrating her story, we come to know the circumstances of these women and their men and how they came to be living in Sydney, where much of the story is based.  The man Betty is betrothed to Captain John (Jacky) Guard, arrived on one of the convict transport ships, a petty criminal, but one whose fortunes have changed as he gets involved in seafaring and whaling.

Miss Malcolm had been a teacher and is now a governess to two children, her situation somewhat precarious since the death of her mistress and her employer’s disapproval of her connection with the so-called captive wife, Betty Guard, whom rumour has it, was not as captive as many would have them believe.

te-rauparahaJacky Guard takes Betty to New Zealand as his wife and they set up home in a bay that is handy for their whaling activities and where it is easy to trade with the native Maori population. Jacky trades with, though doesn’t trust the Maori Rangatira (chief), Te Rauparaha. He is able to negotiate with him, but fears he may have disrespected some of their taboo beliefs. There are constant challenges to their attempt to settle on this land, each time they return to Sydney, their home and belongings are often burned on their return.

Sometimes the whalers invade the villages and fraternise or do worse with the local women and it is through one of these misunderstandings that their lives come under threat and the young Betty is taken captive with her two children.

The novel is based on real events and is compellingly told, as two cultures clash and one way of life is gradually imposed upon another, although the perspective is more oriented towards the colonists, as much of the narrative is told through entries in Jacky Guard’s journal and in the oral narrative of his wife to her ex school teacher.

It is only through Betty’s eyes that we see and experience something of the Maori way of life and their reaction to the arrival of these whalers and traders and the devastation they introduce with what they bring. Betty stays long enough with the tribe to begin to see the value in their ways and it is this sympathy that is subsequently seen as suspicious, as a betrayal not just to her so-called husband, but to the colonial masters.

Betty’s experiences are those of a young woman, though it is as if she has lived much more than her years. Her story is told to Miss Malcolm, who though much older is as much a captive herself, in her spinsterhood and in her inability to communicate her own hidden desire, which Betty’s story forces her to confront.

elizabeth-guardIn real life Betty Guard (born Elizabeth Parker in Parramatta, Sydney) made her first voyage with Captain Jacky Guard when she was either 12 or 15 years old, and he 23 years older than her. She is said to have been the first woman of European descent to settle in the South Island of New Zealand and her son John, the first Pakeha child born in the South Island.

She and her family were captured at one point, her husband released with orders to return with a ransom. Her ordeal was later described in a somewhat lurid report in the Sydney Herald of 17 November 1834. It was four months before a rescue mission was  dispatched to bring them back. She and her family eventually settled in Kakapo Bay, where she is buried and where some of their descendants continue to live today.

The Captive Wife is an intriguing story and although a part of me wishes someone would write a novel from the perspective of the indigenous people, at least this gives us an alternative insight, by giving a significant portion of the narrative to the women who lived through these times, rather than referring to them in the footnotes, as was normally the case, as ‘the woman’.

Fiona Kidman in an interview with Kelly Ana Morey of ANZL, the Academy of New Zealand Literature had this to say about communicating with her characters, during the writing process:

I tend to live inside my characters for a long time when I’m thinking about a book. They go with me wherever I go, and sit beside me in the car. This is true, I’m talking to them all the time. And what is happening is that for the most part I’m thinking about how I would have responded to their situations had I been in them.

This was particularly true of Betty Guard, about whom very little was known – and I take some credit for uncovering her true origins and giving her to her descendants – generally, in historical references she was a footnote and referred to as ‘the woman’. I loved giving her a full-blooded persona and thinking myself into the pa sites where she was taken, and discovering both captivity and a wild freedom of the self.

Buy a book by Fiona Kidman

Kakapo Bay

Kakapo Bay

 

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

ballroomThe Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and one inspired in part by a family connection. I review it in full at Bookbrowse.

A woman who works in a dark, stuffy, factory, one who has been working in hard labour since she a child, is seized by a desperate need to see the sky and smashes a blackened window one day on impulse.

This is how we meet Ella Fay, just before she is committed to an asylum, a place where not only those who genuinely require care, but those who are at the mercy of the powerful (men, husbands, employers), often find themselves.

Picture: Mark Davis

It is here Ella meets John, a more fortunate patient who works outdoors, he and Ella meet briefly when she tries to escape being held and subsequently on Fridays in the ballroom, the only time selected men and women are allowed to meet.

John is being observed by Dr Charles Fuller, who desires to make a contribution to his field, he closely follows the developments of the Eugenics movement, a group who support improvement of the human race through the prevention of the feeble-minded from reproducing. Uncertain which side of the debate he is on, he tests his theories through observations of the patients, until an unfortunate incident swings his position wildly towards one extreme.

Picture: Mark Davis

Tension mounts as Ella and John begin to correspond and grow closer to each other and as Dr Fuller’s plans grow closer to fruition, endangering all that might be.

It is an interesting and gripping novel of the experience of two patients who feel more normal to the reader than the man in charge of them, creating a certain tension as we wonder what will happen to them, as they grow to need each other.

The novel is based in part or at least inspired by the authors own great-great grandfather, also an Irishman, who she discovered was committed to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic asylum in the same era on account of his melancholia, caused by the constant threat of poverty; sadly he passed away there.

It provides a disturbing highlight on the British eugenics movement, at its height at the time, supported by a number of high-profile intellectuals and politicians including Winston Churchill.

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

Click Here To Buy a copy of The Ballroom via Book Depository

the-ballroom2

The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright EdgeEowyn Ivey was the author of my favourite book of 2012 and one of my all time favourite reads, her debut novel The Snow Child an extraordinary, accomplished work about a childless couple who leave the close-knit support of their child-filled families to try to make a success of ‘homesteading’ in the Alaska wilderness.

I’m not the only one who long-awaited the next thing she would write, a book that was first mentioned a couple of years ago, with the suggested title Shadow of the Wolverine and which would eventually be published in 2016 as To the Bright Edge of the World.

I reviewed this title for Bookbrowse, that review (not the same as my comments below) and an article I wrote about Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, can be viewed by members by clicking the link.

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Set in 1885, Ivey’s new book was inspired by real events, and in particular by the adventures of the little known Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen, an Alaskan Explorer and Decorated US Major General and his Report of an Expedition to the Copper, Tananá, and Kóyukuk Rivers.

The author also cites for inspiration Bram Stoker’s Dracula (first-person voices, use of documents and tremendous suspense), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (for its humanity in the face of terror and its time frame) and William Vollmann’s mythological fantasy The Ice-Shirt from the Seven Dream series.

It is narrated firstly through the letters and diary entries of the fictional Lieutenant Allen Forrestor (based on Henry Allen) and his younger wife Sophie, as he makes a commissioned expedition through harsh US owned Alaskan territory up the fictitious Wolverine River, with a small team accompanying him.

His wife Sophie writes him letters and keeps a journal of her time while he is away, so she can share how she spent her time. Sophie is both a woman of her time and ahead of her time, she knows what is expected of her, but has married a man who she hopes accepts she has a mind and a curiosity of her own, a part of her that shall not be tamed.

She takes up photography, learning how to mix chemicals and process plates and spends hours observing birdlife, in some of the most exquisite passages, as she patiently waits to capture a singular event, that might express that moment of pure magic she does not have the words to define, but can recognise instantly in an image, rare though it may be.

allen-team

The Team Who Inspired the Novel

In contemporary time, we also read letters between a descendant of Allen Forrestor named Walter Forrester, who has sent the Colonel’s journals, papers and other items for safekeeping to Josh, the exhibitions curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska, hoping to convince him to safeguard the documents and artefacts, given they are some of the earliest, firsthand descriptions of those northern lands before colonisation, while still inhabited by native Midnooskies (a Russian word for “people of the Copper River”) and Wolverine River Indians (Ahtna and Eyak tribes).

While it is a novel, the journey upriver was inspired by the expedition of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen (1859 – 1930), a true account Eowyn Ivey came across when the bookshop she worked for acquired a rare copy of Allen’s Report of their Expedition to the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk Rivers in the Territory of Alaska.

Ivey took the book home for an evening, staying up late to read it, sharing passages with her husband and was completely fascinated by this piece of Alaskan history she had never heard of before, despite growing up and living all her life there.

In 1885, Allen and two men trekked up the Copper River into completely unmapped territory and encountered Native Alaskans who had never seen white people. The men nearly died many times from starvation and exposure, but eventually they made it through the mountains, down the Yukon River and to Saint Michael.

Though inspired by the Colonel’s expedition, the novel is influenced by other encounters and ancient beliefs she became aware of over time, and it was then the idea for the novel developed:

And at some point it struck me—what if a landscape actively reflected the beliefs of its people? And when these military men ventured into Alaska, what if they had encountered those beliefs as living, breathing, tangible forces?

030412_2011_TheSnowChil1.jpgAnd in a style true to Eowyn Ivey and familiar from her novel The Snow Child (inspired by both a fairy tale and her own life), The Bright Edge of the World might be described she says, as “documentary meets mythology” where certain things the men encounter, they will fail to be able to explain, despite the fact that they all witnessed them. They are things the natives accept and speak of openly, but that these men have no words to describe and are somewhat reluctant to mention.

It is a novel that charts out the recent history of this relatively untamed wilderness and while recognising the beauty and simplicity of a way of life before armies, prospectors and settlers would change it forever, also looks back and recognises that if it were not for those who went first and documented what they found, little of that way of life would be known about and be able to be appreciated today.

The Colonel’s diaries, like the writings of Meriwether Lewis and Captain Cook, are a kind of cursed treasure.

eowyn-ivey

Author, Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World is a wonderful introduction to a little known expedition that opened up further the Alaskan frontiers and a delightful story of a well matched couple, who manage to combine their love of nature and the outdoors with the way they live their lives.

Eowyn Ivey manages to inform and entertain in this worthy follow-up to the magical Snow Child, a novel that was always going to be a tough act to follow.

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Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy), thank you to the publisher for providing a copy via NetGalley.