Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

I really enjoyed reading Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. It’s been sitting unread for several years on the to-be read shelves and I’ve been meaning to read it for ages after reading her earlier book, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I should have got round to it sooner.

It begins:

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.

Well, I thought, here’s a novel way to begin the new century.

It is 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s death and the ‘I’ in this opening is Kitty Coleman, one of several narrators in this novel set in Edwardian England.

Synopsis from Tracy Chevalier’s website:

Two families visit neighboring graves in a fashionable London cemetery. One is decorated with a sentimental angel, the other an elaborate urn. The Waterhouses revere the late Queen and cling to Victorian traditions; the Colemans look forward to a more modern society. To their mutual distaste, the families are inextricably linked when their daughters become friends behind the tombstones. And worse, befriend the gravedigger’s son.

As the girls grow up and the new century finds its feet, as cars replace horses and electricity outshines gas lighting, Britain emerges from the shadows of oppressive Victorian values to a golden Edwardian summer. It is then that the beautiful, frustrated Mrs Coleman makes a bid for greater personal freedom, with disastrous consequences, and the lives of the Colemans and the Waterhouses are changed forever.

A poignant tale of two families brought reluctantly together, Falling Angels is an intimate story of childhood friendships, sexual awakening and human frailty. Yet its epic sweep takes in the changing of a nation, the fight for women’s suffrage and the questioning of steadfast beliefs.

My view:

This book covers the years from 1901 – 1908 when the world was on the cusp of change just before the outbreak of the First World War, and I found myself wondering what my grandmothers, who would have been much the same age as Kitty Coleman and Gertrude Waterhouse, had thought about it all. What would they have thought about the suffragettes for example? I suspect it would have been similar to one of the characters, Jenny Whitby, the Colemans’ maid servant, as they too were domestic servants. Jenny is horrified when she listens to the suffragettes, whilst she served them with scones at Kitty Coleman’s ‘At Home’:

What I heard made me want to spit. They talked about helping women but it turns out they are choosy about who exactly gets the help. They ain’t fighting for my vote – only for women who own property or went to university. (pages 227 – 228)

Maybe my great aunt who never married and became a matron at a public school would have had more sympathy and agreed with the suffragettes that all women would not get the vote all at once and they had to start somewhere. These are the early years of the suffragette movement culminating in the book in June 1908 with the Women’s March in Hyde Park to demand Votes for Women.

The change between Victorian and Edwardian England was a gradual one, as attitudes to life and death were transformed and the middle-class Colemans and the Waterhouses reflect these changing attitudes with the Colemans looking forward to the modern era, whilst the Waterhouses still value the Victorian traditions. I was interested in the discussion about cremation/burial, with Kitty favouring cremation  in opposition to her mother-in-law as they visited the columbarium (a place for keeping cinerary remains, ie ashes) that had recently been opened at the cemetery. Their discussion with Mr Jackson, the superintendent of the cemetery was a theological one in which he ends the discussion of how God could reunite the body and soul if the body has been burnt by saying:

Surely there is no difference between the decomposed remains of a buried body and the ashes of a burned one. … I would simply say that God is capable of all things, and nothing we do with our remains will stop Him if he wishes to reunite our souls with our bodies. (pages 37 – 38)

I liked the multiple first person narrator structure of the book, giving an all round view of events and the characters’ views and thoughts. It was easy to distinguish between them all, the two daughters, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse in particular are very well depicted. The setting too is so well described that I could imagine myself wandering round the cemetery with all its gothic symbology, and see the suffragettes’ march with their banners ‘Deeds not Words’ and hear their cries of ‘Votes for Women’.

It’s an easy to read book that still manages to contain depth both of characterisation and of themes – family relationships, in particular that of mother and daughter, attitudes towards death and mourning, the change in social codes, the perils of being an unmarried mother and the beginnings of the women’s movement. I was fascinated by it!

This page on Tracy Chevalier’s website lists her books – I have one more of hers – The Lady and the Unicorn, I mustn’t wait too long before I read it!

Although I didn’t read this to take part in any challenges I realise that it fits in with several I’ve signed up to do – the Mount TBR Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of book with the word ‘down’ or an equivalent in the title).

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I knew absolutely nothing about Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty before I started to read it. It’s not a book that I’ve seen dramatised. But whilst reading (very slowly) Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens A Life I came across the following information. In May 1836, the year that Dickens, then 24, married Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, he agreed he would write a three volume novel, called Gabriel Vardon by November. But by November he was trying to withdraw from the agreement, due to his commitments in writing Pickwick and Sketches by  Boz. He began writing Gabriel Vardon in 1839 and it was only in February 1841 that its serialisation began. By then he had renamed it as Barnaby Rudge.

It’s a murder mystery as well as a historical novel, mainly concerning the events surrounding the Gordon Riots of 1780. The Riots began in protest to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which granted Roman Catholics exemption from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces and granted them a few liberties, previously denied to them. Led by Lord George Gordon the protests quickly turned violent, Parliament was invaded and Newgate prison was burned to the ground. I was rather surprised that Tomalin gave away most of the plot in describing Barnaby Rudge and gave away the identity of the murderer. I don’t intend to do the same as it spoilt the mystery for me.

Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, five years before the riots as a group of customers in the Maypole Inn in the village of Chigwell, on the borders of Epping Forest and about 112 miles from London, recollect the murder of Reuben Haredale, the owner of The Warren, 22 years earlier to the day. His steward, a Mr Rudge was found months later, stabbed to death.The murderer had never been discovered. Reuben’s brother Geoffrey had lived at The Warren with his niece, Emma ever since.

From then on the book becomes much more complicated with many characters and sub-plots. There is the love story of Emma, a Catholic and Edward Chester, the son of Sir John Chester, a Protestant and opponent of her uncle, who is dead against their marriage. Also crossed in love are Joe Willet, whose father John Willet is the landlord of the Maypole and the captivating Dolly Varden whose father Gabriel Vardon is a locksmith. Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip. (Edgar Allen Poe was inspired by Dickens’s portrait to write his poem The Raven).

It’s a long book and in parts loses its impetus, but picks up when Dickens jumps five years forward into the Riots and I was taken aback by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of the violence and horror:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. … There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their hands and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax.

And then there is the attack on Newgate prison, the release of the prisoners and finally the scene as the mob set fire to the prison, scenes that rival the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities.

By the end of the novel the murderer is revealed and all the plot strands are completed. There are a number of themes running through the novel – the relationship between fathers and sons, the position of authority, justice and the question of punishment for crime, and religious conflict. Dickens paints a picture of London, the dirt and poverty, the terrible condition of the roads, the perils of footpads and highwaymen which is in contrast to the countryside that still at that period surrounded London making it a cleaner, purer place to live in. There are detailed descriptions of the old inn, the Maypole and Vardon’s house and shop with their individual irregularities and strangeness.

And alongside all this are the characters, the restless innocent that is Barnaby, his over-protective and distracted mother, the melodramatic servant Miggs, the pure evil of Hugh, an idle servant at the Maypole who becomes one of the leaders of the riots, and Mr Dennis, the hangman to name but a few.

It wasn’t such a success as some of Dickens’s other novels but I think that that is not a fair reflection of its qualities. It’s almost a book of two parts and the dramatic second half, to my mind, more than makes up for the slow beginning which I had to read slowly and carefully. The portrayal of Barnaby Rudge is also masterly – a sympathetic but totally unsentimental characterisation of his ‘madness’ and his underlying common sense.

Barnaby Rudge was number 6 in the Classics Club Spin, which is the reason I’ve been reading it this June, rather than later.  I’ve had the book on my Kindle since March 2013, so not as long as some of my to-be-read books, so it also counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge too. There are numerous editions of Barnaby Rudge and each one gives different page numbers, depending, I suppose on the format and font size. The Kindle edition estimates its length at 845 pages, so it also counts towards the Tea and Books Challenge.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

I can’t remember how I first came across Karen Maitland‘s books, but after I’d read Company of Liars I was hooked and bought The Owl Killers, a tale of witchcraft and pagan superstition set in 1321.

Karen Maitland has written four medieval thrillers, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse, and Falcons of Fire and Ice, with The Vanishing Witch to be published later this year. She also writes joint medieval crime novels with a group of historical authors known as the Medieval Murderers.

I was going to summarise the novel but I think this description on Fantastic Fiction does it very well:

‘The Owl Killers’ is a novel of an embattled village and a group of courageous women who are set on a collision course – in an unforgettable storm of secrets, lust, and rage.

England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

But another force is touching Ulewic – a newly formed community built and served only by women. Called a beguinage, it is a safe harbor of service and faith in defiance of the all-powerful Church.

Behind the walls of this sanctuary, women have gathered from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a towering former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. But life in Ulewic is growing more dangerous with each passing day. The women are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn, and fury, until the daughter of Ulewic’s most powerful man is cast out of her home and accepted into the beguinage – and battle lines are drawn.

Into this drama are swept innocents and conspirators: a parish priest trying to save himself from his own sins.a village teenager, pregnant and terrified,a woman once on the verge of sainthood, now cast out of the Church … With Ulewic ravaged by flood and disease, and with villagers driven by fear, a secret inside the beguinage will draw the desperate and the depraved – until masks are dropped, faith is tested – and every lie is exposed.’

My View:

The Owl KillersA long, historical novel well founded in its time and place; the historical detail is easily absorbed within the story, without feeling intrusive. There is a glossary of medieval terms and words at the end of the book which also helps to flesh out the detail. The story does indeed come alive through the descriptions of the physical and emotional lives of the characters in the small isolated community where the villagers have interbred – a sign of their belonging is their webbed fingers. Superstition, fear and belief in the supernatural rule their lives.

The novel is told through five narrators, which means there is a rounded picture of events, portraying the characters through their own eyes and also showing how they appear to others. I thought that was particularly well done, illustrating the tensions and misunderstandings between the characters.

The suspense builds as the tension increases, and I began to wonder if all the narrators were to be trusted. Fear of the ‘outsider’ is prevalent, the struggle for power dominates and the outsider is seen as the cause for events, such as floods, famine and disease, outside the villagers’ control. Religious and pagan beliefs clash, and the equality between men and women is challenged.

I found The Owl Killers a compelling story, at the same time down to earth and grounded in reality, yet mystical and mysterious and tragic as it explores the struggle to survive and the battleground between the old pagan beliefs and Christianity.

Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine

Daughters of Fire is historical time-slip fiction switching between the present day and the first century CE Britannia, a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance.  It was with relief that I finished reading it – relief, because although the story of Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes tribe is fascinating and that of historian Viv Lloyd Rees is initially interesting, the book is too long, and too wordy.

Daughters of Fire intermingles two stories, that of  Viv and Cartimandua. Viv has published a book on Cartimandua, a book using alternative as well as traditional historical sources – ie using legends, her dreams and visions as well as the writings of Roman historians. She has ‘borrowed’ an ancient cursed brooch from her boss, Professor Hugh Graham, who has criticised her book as fantasy. The rest of her story is their obsession with and struggle to gain control of the brooch.

Cartimandua, back in the first century is beset by enemies on all sides, Romans and  the leaders of the other tribes. It all goes from bad to worse when she betrays Caradoc (Caractacus), the leader of the Catuvellauni tribe, who led the tribes in resisting the Roman invaders and hands him over in chains to the Romans.

For me the essential story was good, but lost impact as it dragged on, drowned in words and by the repetition of the struggles between the characters. Because of this the ending was drained of any impact and suspense for me. I like time-slip stories, the supernatural and the paranormal, so that wasn’t a problem. And I liked the sections explaining Celtic beliefs – their belief in the immortality of the soul, in reincarnations and transmigration of the soul. As one of the characters said:

Remember the world he lived in was an animistic, rainbow world of links and connections which included vast echelons of spirits and gods and ancestors, people dead and people yet to be born, all of whom could be summoned to his aid. (page 258)

In the Author’s Note, Barbara Erskine emphasises that this is above all fiction:

In the absence of written information one has to make do with imagination, dreams and deductive techniques of a dubious nature! … (page 562)

and regarding Cartimandua:

We don’t know her tribe, or if she had children, and although far more is known about her life than that of he much more famous contemporary, Boudicca, she is still an enigma.

So, for all that is historically known about Cartimandua I refer the reader to the Roman historians.

For the truth of her life we must consult archaeology and the oracles.

The rest is silence. (page 562)

A couple of years ago I read Barbara Erskine’s book, The Warrior Princess, another time-slip book, which I also thought was too drawn out and would have been better if the plotting had been tighter. I own one more of her books, which I’ve yet to read – Sands of Time, a collection of short stories, described on the back cover as ‘spine-tingling‘ tales all with ‘a touch of the unexpected … suspense, romance, passion, unexpected echoes of the past.’ I hope, because these are short stories, they will be more succinct than the two books I have read.

This book qualifies for several challenges – Mount To-Be-Read 2013 (it’s been on my shelves for about 4 years), The Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeWhat’s in a Name 6 (in the Fire category) and Once Upon a Time VII (Fantasy).

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

Redemption of AS 001There are some books that have the power to transport me to another time and place and The Redemption of Alexander Seaton is one such book. I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve read recently. It’s quite long and detailed but each time I put it down I wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible. It’s a fantastic book, historical crime fiction, full of atmosphere and well-drawn characters.

It’s set in 17th century Scotland, mainly in the town of Banff, where on a stormy night Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s assistant collapses in the street. The next morning he is found dead in the school house of Alexander Seaton, a failed minister, now a schoolteacher. Davidson was poisoned and when Charles Thom, one of Alexander’s few friends in the town is arrested for the murder, he sets out to prove his innocence. It’s not an easy task, and Alexander finds himself embroiled in an apparent Spanish Catholic plot to invade Scotland, and bigoted prejudices that result in a witch hunt.

As the story unfolds details of Alexander’s history are gradually revealed, his family background, friends and education and the disgrace that prevented him from becoming a minister. The religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants during the reign of Charles I is slotted into the plot seamlessly, explaining the beliefs and prejudices that struck fear into many hearts. It’s a story of murder and cruelty, but also of love and the power of good over evil. For Alexander it’s a trial that eventually sees him beginning to regain his faith in God.

I found the book totally absorbing, convinced I was back in Scotland in the 17th century, eager to find out who the murderer was and the motivation for killing Patrick Davidson. Alexander Seaton is an engaging character and I’m keen to read more about him as there are other books in the series.

The author originally wrote under her name – Shona Maclean, but now her books are published under the truncated name, S G MacLean. She explained in an interview in Shots magazine that ‘the thinking was that my name was too soft and feminine and men wouldn’t buy my books.’ She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen. Her Alexander Seaton books are:

1. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (2008)
2. A Game of Sorrows (2010)
3. Crucible of Secrets (2011)
4. The Devil’s Recruit (2013)

Note: The cover shown above is from the 2009 paperback edition published by Quercus, which I borrowed from my local library.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Some years ago I was browsing in a bookshop at Gatwick airport to add to the books I’d brought with me to read on holiday and I bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I loved it. I’ve read some of her other books, but none as good as The Poisonwood Bible. When I saw that she had written The Lacuna and it had won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, (actually beating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall!) I bought it, expecting great things. That was two and half years ago and it’s only this year that I’ve read it.

I was disappointed as I don’t think it’s as good as either Wolf Hall or The Poisonwood Bible. There some good parts, but overall I was glad to finish reading it. It’s a long tale (670 pages), moving from Mexico in the 1930s to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the USA of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it began and ended well, with good descriptions and fascinating characters, but I got bored several times in the middle.

It’s the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father and it’s told through his diaries and letters together with genuine newspaper articles, although whether they reported truth or lies is questionable. It begins in Mexico where Harrison’s mother took him to live when she left his father to live with a Mexican businessman, she calls Mr Produce the Cash behind his back. I thought this part came to life with lyrical descriptions of the people and the landscape. But it is only in the second half of the novel that I felt Harrison himself came alive as a character, no longer talking about himself in the third person, ‘the boy’, and referring to himself as ‘I’.

Throughout the book Kingsolver intermingles real characters and events with her fictional ones and I thought that worked well. There are the artists Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Harrison works for Diego, mixing plaster for his huge murals he painted in Mexico City. Whilst working for Rivera, who was a communist he met and subsequently worked for the exiled Bolshevik leader, Lev Trotsky. And it is this connection that eventually lands him in difficulties later on when he had moved to live in the USA and became a novellist writing historical fiction about the Aztecs. He is accused of being a communist and being Un-American.

I found the historical parts very interesting as I knew nothing about Rivera, or his wife, and very little about Trotsky and the McCarthy trials. But eventually I found the level of detail was just too much and the story meandered, losing impetus. Harrison himself comes across as too passive, too accepting of what ever happened to him, a victim of circumstances. Much more interesting is the second narrator, Violet Brown who becomes his secretary and friend, who saved his diaries from being burnt.

There are several instances of lacunas, missing parts and gaps, scattered throughout the book. For example, some of Harrison’s diaries and notebooks go missing. As a boy he loved swimming and diving into a cave, which is only available at certain tides:

Today the cave was gone. Saturday last it was there. Searching the whole rock face below the cliff did not turn it up. Then the tide came higher and waves crashed too hard to keep looking. How could a tunnel open in the rock and then close again? … Leandro says the tides are complicated and the rocks on that side are dangerous, to stay over here in the shallow reef. He wasn’t pleased to hear about the cave. He already knew about it, it is called something already, la lacuna. (page 45)

But although The Lacuna is well written and well researched I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but sadly it dragged for me.

Historical Fiction Challenge 2013

Historical FictionAt this time of year numerous challenges are being announced and I’m tempted to join them. It’s a bit like making New Year resolutions, full of enthusiasm at first … But there are some challenges that interest me because they fit in with my reading, such as the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge (more about that in another post to come), which I’ve been doing for the last three years. I don’t think of them as ‘challenges’ – they’re really ‘projects’.

As historical fiction is one of my favourite genres and I read a fair amount of it I’ve decided to join the Historical Fiction Challenge for 2013.

This Challenge is being hosted by Historical Tapestry and runs from 1 January to 31 December 2013. There are five different levels of participation to choose from:

20th century reader ‘“ 2 books
Victorian reader ‘“ 5 books
Renaissance Reader ‘“ 10 books
Medieval ‘“ 15 books
Ancient History ‘“ 25+ books

I shall be aiming for the Medieval level (but really hoping to make it to the Ancient History level).

If you’re interested in joining too, see this post at Historical Tapestry.