My interview with the author of my MA dissertation text has been published on the Asymptote blog this evening and you can read it here.
I have to be honest with you all. I watched this film a few years ago, and only got the book this year. It was a wonderful film; beautifully touching, funny and sad in equal measure. And the book is even better.
Jack and his mother live in Room. There’s Bed, and Stove and Bath and Dresser and Skylight and Wardrobe and not much else. It’s Jack’s fifth birthday, but his mum has been stuck in Room for 7 years now. 7 years in a few square metres. Reading this book has come with a new perspective in the Age of Covid, as I watched the film before quarantine was an existing reality. Now that quarantine is a thing we’ve all experienced, the prospect of spending 7 years in a single room becomes even more harrowing. Hell, I couldn’t even manage two days inside without sneaking out for midnight walks (nowhere near anybody, everyone chill out).
Jack and his Ma hatch a plan to get them out of Room. Jack has to play dead so their captor will bring him outside to bury him in the forest, but will it work? Will Jack manage to free his Ma from Room?
This book is all written from the perspective of five-year-old Jack which is a feat in itself, one which I appreciate even more so having spent so much time on characterisation and narrative voice in my MA year. The consistency and clarity of Jack’s voice is incredible, and this novel is incredibly ambitious. It feels like he’s speaking right to you, right through you. Donoghue has managed to seemingly perfectly channel a five-year-old’s grammar, odd word order and made-up onomatopoetic names for things. I’m thinking she absolutely must must must have had young children, or have had some young children in the family at the time. Otherwise she’s superhuman, a voice-channeling genie in the pages of a book.
The plot is taught and breathless towards the middle despite so much of the narrative being spent in Room. The trauma and difficulties of the second half of the book feel real and visceral, as does society’s treatment of women who’ve escaped from these macabre situations; as curiosities, almost freakshows. Room is a book that needs to be read quickly, digested slowly and then marveled at.
“You can’t expect the world to be exactly the same as it is in books.”
Skalde and her mother Edith live cut off from the world by fog and a collapsed bridge. Civilization has also collapsed, and they live on the edge of a small loosely-knit group in the so-called ‘territory’. Edith arrived as an outsider, so they are tolerated, yet treated with disdain and suspicion by most of the few people they have any contact with. Skalde loses herself in books until the day she starts losing her milk teeth and finds a girl in the forest called Meisis. Slowly, she finds the strength to rebel against her mother’s neglect and to question the rules of the society she finds herself in.
This is a claustrophobic work. As a child, Skalde rarely leaves their house and garden. The novel feels particularly relevant in the Covid era, as this kind of situation now feels all-too-familiar to all of us. The world beyond the river is a scary, dangerous place that presses at the edges of their small world. It’s a reminder that we are living in an increasingly atomised age — an era of isolationism between countries rather than internationalism, sparked by the international shift to the right, the feeling of some leaders that ‘my country is an island’ — and catalysed by Covid.
In the ‘territory,’ suspicion of outsiders takes hold in Milk Teeth, echoing the eagerness of some to make certain groups responsible for ‘spreading’ new variants in the Covid era. Neighbours judge neighbours, people are cast out for reasons as trivial as having red hair or failing to lose their milk teeth. The setting — dense fog followed by blazing heat in an indiscernible survivalist purgatory, only adds to the novel’s cloying nature. I read this while quarantining. In some ways, it was the best situation in which to read this book, if completely unnerving.
Milk Teeth is difficult to categorise. In some ways, it is a traditional survivalist novel: the narrator rears rabbits, plants potatoes, makes her own soap. In other ways, this book’s eccentricities combine to make a work that is singularly strange: its chapters are entirely inconsistent, the narrator is highly unreliable, and the reader is left with the feeling that everything is distinctly off-kilter, left wondering if anything described is even ‘real’. The narration and prose are dreamlike and topsy-turvy, the women live in a bubble within a closed-off society. Edith never seems to eat yet always paints her lips a new colour, lays in the bath for hours or days on end, and wears a black rabbit skin coat in summer. She feeds her dogs tree bark. To use the vocabulary of Stranger Things, it’s as though they are stuck in the ‘Upside Down’.
Much of the novel is left unexplained. I wondered why society had collapsed: why those who founded the territory fled over the bridge and then blew it up behind them. I wondered where Edith came from, why the trees don’t fruit and the rabbits die. I feel there could be some deeper warning here about the imminent climate emergency we are all facing, but this isn’t a book to read if you’re looking for answers rather than more questions. The novel is short, and the short chapters create an almost breathless reading experience
The fragmentation of this novel also adds to its mystery. Some chapters are no more than short scraps of memory. Time doesn’t seem to move in any logical way. Sometimes the novel’s fragmentation is a drawback, as the plot seems to meander in the second half of the book without really building to anything. Skalde seems to speak directly through the reader via the medium of cryptic notes written to herself, which appear in block capitals. I particularly enjoyed these sections — Jen Calleja has constructed sentences with a beautiful cadence in English:
“HOW LONG CAN I STAND UPRIGHT WHEN HOLDING UP MY OWN BODY BRINGS ME TO MY KNEES TWICE AS HARD”
The novel and some of the block caps notes are reminiscent of Cormack Mccarthy’s The Road in its brutality and graphic focus on telling a survival story via the senses:
“I DREAMED THE SMELL OF GUNPOWDER. THE LAND HAS BEEN LEFT FULL OF HOLES. THESE VOIDS ARE MY DOWNFALL.”
This book isn’t for the fainthearted, or someone looking for an uplifting message. Like The Road, this book is dark, heavy, and throws light on the worst facets of the human condition: fear, hatred, mistrust, suspicion, selfishness and neglect. There is violence, but I would say this novel is harrowing on a more psychological level. One of the most tragic themes is the broken relationship between Skalde and her mother Edith. The arrival of Meisis only seems to heat tensions in the household as Edith plays mind games, ignoring and then favouring Meisis over Skalde. The group shun Meisis as an outsider and initiate a campaign of slowly increasing terror and intimidation against them.
Edith, Meisis and Skalde become the town scapegoats and all problems are laid at their door, including the disappearance of a child. It’s a reminder that, in a time of crisis, we often seek to impose meaning on madness, we want to find an easy solution, to make it make sense. Someone or something has to be to blame. But prejudice and finger-pointing only ever serve to endanger us further and tear us further apart. Milk Teeth isn’t a comfortable read, but it’s a timely book. It’s the kind of novel with a lingering taste, one that weighs on the soul. It’s the kind of book that asks for introspection, makes you take a deep look at yourself and wonder aren’t we all just as bad?
A charming and somewhat saddening family history which promised more than it gave.
Arnautovic tells the story of her own family in this brand new ‘novel’, a documentary tale which details a war-scattered family spread across several countries, from Vienna to Kursk and Moscow to Manchester.
Ljuba’s father, Viktor/Karli (he has an Austrian and, later, a Russian name), is transported to Moscow along with his brother as a child. Why? Their parents are socialist revolutionaries, supporters of the ‘Red Vienna’, a failed socialist project for the city which ended in a short yet bloody civil war in the 1930s. In 1934, Karli and Slavko are sent to Russia to grow up under the Bolshevist state. At first, things are great. They live amongst fellow socialists and other Austrian children in a state-of-the-art children’s home and remain shielded from the worst of the Great Purges.
But the peace doesn’t last. After the invasion of Russia by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, the children’s home is disbanded and the children are treated with immediate suspicion. They are German-speaking. Hitler has broken the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They could be moles or spies for the enemy. They could be sabotaging the Soviet regime from within. Karli is separated from his brother, and, after fleeing from several horrific ‘vocational schools’, he is sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag. Karli survives, but he will never see his brother again. He eventually returns to Kursk and marries a woman he met in the gulag called Nina. They have two daughters together, one of whom is Ljuba Arnautovic.
Karli/Viktor eventually manages to get back in touch with his mother after twenty years. She lives in Vienna. After years of wrangling with Russian and Austrian bureaucracy, Karli and his family eventually get the necessary documentation to move to Vienna in the 1950s, just as the Cold War is hotting up. Karli loves his new/old life in Vienna, and finds it easy to re-learn his German, but Nina feels trapped and isolated. Eva, Karli’s mother, is less than understanding, despite them all having to live under one roof. Unsurprisingly the marriage breaks down.
Karli turns out to be the villain of the story, as he has an affair (he will go on to marry three more times), yet somehow manages to win sole custody of their children. But he has no intention of being a single dad, and parcels them off intermittently to children’s homes when his current wife or put-upon mother is unable to care for them. Nina is now homeless in Vienna after being pushed out of the family home following their divorce, and has no choice but to become a quasi-housekeeper-cum-domestic slave to a local violent, illiterate Ukranian widower. My heart bled for Nina for the entire second half of the book.
The story is told in short chapters (yay) with impressive flashes of quiet lyricism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Arnautovic’s prose. The story itself is one I have never heard of- I had no idea there was a civil war in Vienna in the 1930s, and I had no idea that there were so many young Austrian children sent to Russia to escape rising fascism in Germany.
Then there’s the maternal side of the story: Anastasia, Nina’s mother and Ljuba’s maternal grandmother, is a very interesting character indeed. In fact, I would have very much liked to hear more of her and less of Karli. She’s the first-born daughter of a first-born daughter’s daughter, and is the local wise woman. The people of her neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Kursk think she is blessed with the second sight, and simultaneously revere and fear her. Towards the end, I was fed up with Karli’s selfish exploits and really wanted to hear more about Ljuba’s maternal line. This would definitely have improved the book.
I had a few problems with this book, and really couldn’t understand why it got such glowing reviews (4.4 stars on Amazon).
Firstly, the term ‘novel’ is misleading. It should be called ‘a family biography’ or something along those lines. I was expecting a historical novel and didn’t get one in the slightest. It’s not very literary, as dialogue is sparse and Ljuba’s storytelling is rather swallowed up by the documentary material included in this short volume. There are a lot of translated official documents included in italics, which are written in an incredibly bureaucratic German I found difficult to digest. There are interviews included, which I really feel that Arnautovic could have turned into convincing dialogue surrounded by prose. I felt this book could have been longer, as there was so much to tell. I also really felt that Arnautovic could definitely have been more imaginative and creative in filling in the gaps between the evidence. It could have been a well-researched historical novel, but it felt like a fragmentary anthology of documentary evidence.
I also had a problem with the sheer volume of letters included in the book. We hear from Karli, but replies from Eva, Nina or Erika (his second wife) aren’t included. Maybe they had been lost, but we’re only getting half of the story regardless. This made it frustrating for me, as the long-suffering women in his life became silent. Also, Karli is fairly uneducated and clearly not a born letter-writer. His writing was awkward and incredibly cringey in places. Arnautovic could have put these letters to good use, but they don’t quite work in their raw form.
Rebecca is my tutor for the historical fiction module, so I’m glad I can be largely positive about this.
I got this book months ago but I’ve finally just had the chance to read something purely for pleasure: that means in English, a novel, and nothing to do with my modules. Who knew that studying literature and translation would mean that I barely get the chance to read for myself? Oh yeah, I did know that.
Daniel Connor is an anatomy and medicine student at Edinburgh University. He is sent by his tutor to post-revolutionary France, where Napoleon has fallen and the King has been returned to the throne. He starts a job under Professor Cuvier at the world-famous Jardin des Plantes, categorising species.
Upon arriving on the mail coach, Daniel realises the beautiful woman he met the night before has stolen his corals, manuscript and bones which were the references and gifts needed to start his job at the Jardin. He drifts around Paris with his newfound Scottish friend and fellow student Fin, unable to start work, and a bit lost.
But the mysterious woman hasn’t disappeared completely. This becomes a thriller as well as a historical novel, with spies, jewel heists and rings of thieves in hiding.
Time and place were beautifully executed. early 19th-century Paris felt alive in my mind. I really enjoyed the first part of the book – the month in which Daniel gets drunk and behaves like most other twenty-year-old students in Paris with nothing much to do. Absinthe, gambling, phantasmagoria. Stott did such a good job of setting it’s making me want to go back and edit my own fiction, which is how it should be.
It’s an incredibly interesting point in time to set a novel. Twenty years after the Revolution, just after Napoleon has been defeated after escaping from prison once more. Napoleon is on his way to the tiny rock which will be his ‘prison’ (a rather beautiful tropical island prison) for the rest of his life: Saint Helena. The ethos of the Revolution is crumbling all around them. No more liberté, egalité, fraternité, but no more Terror either. The lions are being pulled from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and given back to Rome. Everywhere, the European powers are descending on Paris and taking back what had been stolen from them: including the beautiful collection of fossils, corals and bones at the Jardin des Plantes.
Time was evoked beautifully, naturally and not too often. Paris- a seething metropolis where nobody is as they seems – seemed almost a third main character in the novel.
So why four starts instead of five? The plot felt a little weak at times. Case in point: the climax of the novel, a great jewel heist. The characters repeat time and time again how impossible it is to break into the Jardin’s Museum, how well-locked, how well-protected everything is. I was curious how they were going to figure out a way in. And in the end, I never found out. The other characters just kind of abseil from somewhere in the roof just like any first, tacky mental image you get when I say the words ‘Jewel Heist’. We also never really found out how Lucienne, the mysterious woman, manages to fake her own death to get away from Paris.
Jagot, the Parisian police-chief-cum-spymaster, really wants the diamond. This felt kind of cheap for a baddie, I thought there would be some deeper motivations at play than just wanting a diamond. Blackmail, extortion? Deep-seated lusts? No, dude wants to get rich. Also, he lets Daniel and Lucienne run around the city for months, although Lucienne is supposedly in hiding. Hmmm.
And now we come to character. Daniel doesn’t warrant being the ‘I’-narrator. He’s passive, dull, and I honestly couldn’t give you many adjectives to describe his character after a whole book. Which is a bit sad, because ‘I’-narrators give you the most insight into their personality. Naive? Biddable? Maybe these two. At times, he’s infuriatingly passive, and for someone who apparently adores botany and biology, he forgets about it all pretty quick. His mental monologues on corals, fossils and bones in the first half of the book don’t fit with his treatment of his job in the second half of the book- as just going through the motions until he can swan around Paris with his older girlfriend and drink absinthe after dark.
Whereas Daniel is flat and underdeveloped, Lucienne seems to have more character facets than seems plausible. She is a fallen aristocrat during the Revolution, whose life was saved in prison because another woman stepped up and was executed in her name (why? No idea). She dresses as a man half of the time, she is a thief, a coral enthusiast, a philosopher. Nobody seems to care that she is a woman alone, with no husband, no real home, no honest income. It felt too modern. Nobody struggles with that. She didn’t seem to have struggled being a fallen aristocratic female cross-dresser who began a sparkling career in thievery.
This book explores the lingering legacy of childhood trauma with sensitivity and flair.
Translated from the Finnish by Douglas Robinson. The book includes a short bio of the translator on the inside cover, which is directly under the author’s bio and is even a few words longer! I am so happy. Well done Portobello books for recognising the translator.
What is it about Nordic literature that is so beautiful and haunting? Careful, considered, and insightful, this book is for everyone who finds it impossible to escape the ghosts of their past.
Anna, the I-narrator, is a semi-functioning adult. She works as a freelance journalist in Helsinki. Her boyfriend, Ian, was once her lecturer in English literature at university (read into that what you will). Anna and Ian both adore Virginia Woolf, and there is a certain stamp of her psychological analysis on the author’s style.
Anna and Ian are both plagued by childhood trauma. Anna’s abusive father is a Lutheran priest, and Ian’s deceased father was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD after the war. Both of their mothers were loving but ineffectual, and failed to save or shield them from the trauma and abuse they experienced. Anna’s brother Joona is mentally ill and has been institutionalised for most his adult life. His breakdowns were most probably a direct result of his father’s physical abuse. Anna has spent most of her life trying to keep the fractured pieces of her family together, being the ‘normal’ one. The novel is a nod to Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past, where the premise is essentially the author eating a madeleine and being confronted with a wave of childhood memories. Anna sits in a cafe procrastinating visiting her brother in intensive care after another suicide attempt. She orders a mocha square and it goes from there.
The story is told in short, fractured chapters which skip and jump between then and now, between Ian and Anna’s childhoods, the fictive present and the in-between, the awkward coming-of-age years. Some readers may find this annoying, but I don’t. I have the attention span of a squirrel, and long chapters tend to send me to sleep. I like the page-turning feeling of achievement and multiple opportunities for pee and coffee breaks. I don’t mind a fractured narrative. I like putting the pieces of the puzzle together like a shattered mirror.
This book is mostly cold and sad, haunting and melancholy, like a Finnish winter. Don’t read it if you want to have some pep in your step for the rest of the day. It’s short, at just 180 pages and fairly spaced-out font, so most readers will be able to finish it in a couple of days. I like sad books. They make me feel more human. Having said that, there’s no absolutely devastating sections designed to manipulate your emotions. This book is highly relatable for anyone who has suffered/is suffering from mental illness. Most people have some kind of trauma they usually keep in a locked drawer, and this novel may be cathartic if not triggering.
I have the sneaking suspicion that some of it must be at least semi-autobiographical. Hirvonen is extremely good at getting behind the facade, the veneer we construct day to day. Nobody wants to walk around telling everyone we meet that no, we are not okay. People don’t want to hear your struggle. There’s a pressure to act normal, and shame if we don’t. Most of my anxiety has consistently come from the fear that people will look at me and know my ‘failing’, that I’m not like them. That I had two hours sleep last night, that my palms are sweaty and my heart erratic. That my jaw is clenched and I feel sick with nerves. Everyone expects us to go through the motions of a normal life regardless. Anna struggles, but only Ian knows.
This book is not new, it was first released in Finnish in 2005. Anything written 2002-2010 was steeped in a pervasive post 9/11 existential angst that is simply no longer relevant. I felt Ian’s agonising over the US’s response to 9/11 (Ian is from New York) didn’t ring true and detracted from his personal story. It felt at parts like Hirvonen was shoe-horning politics into the character’s inner lives to keep up with the Zeitgeist. That is all.
Creepy character development paints a convincing vignette of an estranged family with plenty of skeletons in the closet.
Translated from the Norwegian to the German by Gabriele Haefs.
I’m getting to the point now where I assume that anything I pick up originally written in a Scandinavian language is going to be an absolute cracker. Scandi Noir has really taken off in the last few years, and maybe there’s something about the long, cold winters and tendency to ennui that makes for such compelling writers.
I obtained this book from a friend having a clear out. Most of the time, the things you pick up in this way won’t really be to your taste. But then you find a gem that makes it all worthwhile. So much is translated for the German market these days (oh, to be a native German and be able to make a living out of literary translation), that almost anything you come across in Germany these days has an almost 50/50 chance of not having been originally written in German.
Synopsis + Highlights
This is a thriller of the slow-burn type, which works hard to build up a believable picture of a strange, divided family made up of clashing personalities. To say they clash would actually be putting it lightly. An eighty-year-old woman- Anna- having a stroke in a remote Norwegian village sets off a chain of events when her three sons reunite for the first time in years, along with a granddaughter she never even met.
Of the three sons, there’s a solemn undertaker who’s a stickler for the rules, a flamboyant gay window dresser who fled to Copenhagen to avoid the homophobia and closed-mindedness of his isolated hometown, and a lonely pig farmer who stinks like a… well, pig. Her only granddaughter, a dog trainer, also shows up to pay her respects once it’s clear her grandmother is never going to recover- despite the fact that they have never met. Anna’s husband is a strange, mute man who slopes around their dilapidated farmhouse like a ghost and also doesn’t know how to wash himself or the dishes.
The chain of events mentioned at the start of this section may feel a little tame, particularly for an American audience or those who prefer their thrillers full of bodies and explosions. Nobody dies (except the grandmother peacefully in her sleep), nobody goes mad, and there’s not even any incest (well, not really). Torunn, the granddaughter, strikes up a charming (and rather predictable) relationship with the flamboyant Erlend, and they make a concerted effort to support the struggling Tor, the pig farmer with the ghost-for-a-father and no personal hygiene. This is a family drama- suspense and the will to turn each page comes from their chalk-and-cheese combinations and world-building of the rotten farmhouse at the edge of the world.
Anna is a mysterious character. We never really ‘meet’ her, as she is in a coma for the whole novel. We only really get to know her through what others say about her, and there’s a lot of mixed messages and conflicting narratives involved. Tor, the oldest son, is the only one who had any contact with her. In fact, he was still living with his parents when she had a stroke. There are definite creepy oedipal undertones here. There’s an especially memorable part of the book where Tor is reminiscing about his childhood- having a thermometer stuck into a particularly unnecessary part of the body. Yikes.
But, in comparison to other books I’ve attempted to push my way through this week, this was a page turner. I loved the mismatched family vignette. I loved how awkward they all were. The reader sympathises with Torunn as she tries to make sense of the messed-up family she barely even knew existed.
The only disappointments were that I could have done with a tiny bit more happening, and the twist was a bit tame/tired. It turns out that their father is not their father at all, but their half-brother. This was really difficult to get my mathematically and logically-challenged brain around. So Anna is destined to marry the son of a man (I forgot the fake-father’s name, he’s pretty much just referred to as ‘Father’ in the novel). She marries him for appearances. Instead, she is in love with his father, her father-in-law. Her three sons are actually her father-in-law’s, making the fake-father their half-brother. Get it? It took me a few minutes. So no actual incest involved, and I was glad about that. SO MANY books have incest as the twist. I’m past caring. It’s not a twist anymore. Give it up. Find a new twist. This novel basically used the same twist with legal rather than biological incest though, so I was a tad let down about that, especially since I was so impressed with it up until that point.
A heart-wrenching, eerie classic.
This book is a modern classic, and rightly so. There’s nothing I’m about to say which hasn’t already been said. That said, let’s get on with my gushing (I’m not even going to include a lowlights section because there aren’t any).
The story starts in the late Antebellum period in what would become the United States. The scope is large- ranging from Kentucky to Carolina and Georgia, from the immediate pre-Civil War years, to the Civil War and its aftermath for black Americans. Sethe is a slave on a farm called Sweet Home, where she labours with a handful of men including Paul D and her husband Halle, her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and her children, Howard, Bugler, (Beloved), and soon-to-be-born Denver. The story slips in and out of different places and time periods, though much of it is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, after Sethe’s daring escape from slavery. Her husband, Halle, is nowhere to be seen and presumed dead, but Baby Suggs, Sethe and the children have managed to make it out alive and start a new life in ‘freedom’ in the North.
They move into a house on the edge of town owned by some local white abolitionists. But a month later, and a month after Denver is born, the slave catchers, the ‘schoolmaster’ from Sweet Home and some hired help, find Sethe. They want her and her children. Instead of handing herself and them over and back into slavery in the South, Sethe cuts one of her baby’s throats. The child who dies has not been given a name at this point, but Beloved will later be written on her gravestone. The slavers give up and leave- their cargo is now either dead or insane- and Sethe goes to prison but is spared the death penalty via the efforts of the local black community and the white abolitionists, the Bodwins.
They live, shunned, until Baby Suggs dies and, 18 years after the awful events at 124, Paul D finds Sethe. Having known each other most of their lives at Sweet Home, they start up a relationship and he moves in with her and her only remaining daughter Denver, the boys having fled aged 13- understandably traumatised by the infanticide they had witnessed in the garden shed. In fact, had a family friend named Stamp Paid not stopped Sethe, she would have killed all her children rather than hand them back into slavery, and everyone knows this.
However, one day after visiting the carnival, Paul D, Sethe and Denver find a mysterious stranger sitting on a tree stump outside their house. She is around nineteen years old and wears a high-necked dress and brand new shoes. She introduces herself as Beloved.
This novel explores the huge emotional trauma engendered by the enslavement and terrorising of black Americans in the 19th century. Each word is heavy with a melodic, keening sadness, and Morrison has beautifully captured the historical idiom and cadences of this community. She has been blessed with the gift of writerly genius, able to handle deep, heavy, traumatic topics with an incredible lightness of pen. Some chapters, especially from Beloved’s point of view, are incredibly experimental – using broken prose and poems to get her eerie, ethereal nature and raw emotion across. Morrison was inspired by a true story – of a woman who killed her child rather than hand her over to the slave catchers – and worked to humanise her into the character of Sethe, who is amazingly complex, traumatised, and suffering from PTSD and other mental illness – which, of course, didn’t really have a word back then.
The reader is left puzzled as to the true nature of Beloved. Is she an imposter who heard the story and is looking to cash in on Sethe’s guilt, like a cuckoo in the nest? Is she a ghost, a demon? Is she a figment of Sethe and Denver’s imagination, a collective projection? Is it really her daughter come back in the flesh like some kind of magic? Is it the house working some kind of evil over them? Beloved is intensely creepy- demanding, inhuman, charming, beautiful, ruthless and cruel – demanding attention and sweet things, becoming bloated on their emotion and attention.
This book is beautiful, haunting and infused with layers of intergenerational grief: of parents torn from children, scattered diasporas, helplessness and ultimate strength.
Not Philippa Gregory’s finest hour, but a light read all the same.
I got this in the Waterstones sale, lured by the author’s name and the beautiful cover. It turns out I should probably have bought something else instead, but I don’t quite regret reading this book either. It’s a strong meh from me.
I wish I had known it was part of the Tidelands trilogy, because this is completely not obvious from the cover or from the description which was on the Waterstones website. I wouldn’t usually read a trilogy out of order, but this time, my perpetration of such a literary faux pas was at least unwitting.
There are plenty of spoilers in this review.
A mysterious widow shows up on the doorstep of her deceased husband’s family. She is twice married- once the widow of a Venetian noble, she has the airs and graces of a lady of leisure. However, her second husband, Robert, was her first husband’s doctor, and a marked step down on the social scale. Robert drowns tragically in the Venice canals, so she flees to London with no other options. At least this is the story she tells. The Reekie family run a sufferance wharf on the rundown southern side of the Thames in London, 1670. It’s restoration England: King Charles II has regained his throne, Oliver Cromwell has been exhumed just to be ‘executed’, and papistry is on the rise once again. The Puritans have been defeated, and many are fleeing to New England to live in their distinctly ascetic manner. The Reekies are Protestant, but matters of religion and state are not of much interest to them, which play out as more of a backdrop to the story. Ned Ferryman, Alinor Reekie’s brother, has moved to New England in refusal to live under a King once more.
The refined yet penniless widow, Nobildonna da Ricci/Picci/Peachey, convinces her poor in-laws to start importing her statue collection from Venice to London, promising them they will earn a fortune once the profits begin to roll in from the sales. But these are empty promises, and Livia is a fraud. She ruthlessly exploits anyone she can for her own gain: lying, scheming and never giving back. She manipulates and gaslights her way into affections of some of her new family, beginning a relationship with her ‘dead’ husband’s sister, Alys, and soon has her wrapped around her little finger. She also seduces a rich northern Lord, Sir James, and convinces him to let her sell her forged statues from his London town house. He proposes to her and she is overjoyed at the promise of becoming a wealthy young noblewoman once again. But she doesn’t fool Alinor, the matriarch of the family. Alinor sends her granddaughter Sarah to look into Robert’s disappearance in Venice, convinced he is not actually dead.
Meanwhile, in New England, Ned is attempting to forge out a life as a free man, yet finds this is more difficult than he thinks. He lives at the edge of town and runs the ferry across the river. This brings him into more contact with the local Native American tribes than the rest of their small European settlement. Ned has no great ambition other than to live simply and independently, but he is soon unsettled by the greed, ambition and prejudice of his fellow settlers. The settlers have been forcing the Pokanoket and Massasoit to sell acres upon acres of their land at rock-bottom prices. There are tensions and stirrings of a coming war between the English and the natives, one which Ned is keen to avoid. He is friends with some of the Pokanoket people, and has far more empathy towards them than the rest of his village. The Pokanoket share their way of life with him and help him to survive the harsh winter. Throughout the course of the novel, he becomes more and more conflicted about where his loyalties truly lie: with the settlers and their conviction that ruling over the natives is God’s plan, or with his Native American friends? Ned is a veteran of the English Civil War, and he does not want to see another war on this new land, one fought not to overthrow a wasteful tyrant but rather in the name of xenophobia and greed.
My favourite story thread was Ned’s. His character development felt realistic and relatable. He is English, but does not see the Pokanoket or Massasoit as his enemies. He is a man who only wants to live peacefully on his own terms, yet it becomes impossible to avoid the developing turmoil. His descriptions of the Native Americans felt sensitive and nuanced, and you can see that Gregory did her homework in this respect. I also like how she doesn’t gloss over the language barrier. As a translator, I become ridiculously frustrated when people from vastly different cultures with vastly different languages appear to communicate with perfect ease in perfect English on the pages of a book. Often, the fact that they would have been speaking either in broken English, a vehicular language, or another foreign language altogether is completely glossed over. However, not here. Ned, when speaking in the Pokanoket language, reverts to the grammar and lexicon of an eight-year-old child, showing the reader that his grasp of the language is far from fluent. Conversely, the Native Americans have their own way of speaking English. In the other threads of the story, Gregory also introduces a lot of Italian words when Livia is speaking, reminding us she would have been speaking English with a strong Italian accent and flavour.
Although much of the plot was very predictable and transparent, there were some unexpected twists. For example, I had no idea that Signor Russo, Livia’s business partner for shady dealings in Venice, was actually also a grave robber with corpses in the basement. But honestly, that was about the only surprise in the book, which isn’t saying much for the plot.
Gregory’s prose was, as ever, highly readable, but I did notice some odd grammar in places and I do wonder if she may have gotten a tiny bit complacent in her career.
Boy do I have a few of these.
Plot holes, plot holes everywhere. When Sarah discovers the truth about Russo and Livia’s successful plot to denounce her second husband Robert in Venice, alarm bells started ringing. I had so many questions. Apparently, they denounced him and had him arrested because he had discovered their secrets about robbing graves and forging antiques. But then, when in prison and being interrogated, why wouldn’t Robert have thrown them under the bus and denounced them right back? In the seething hotbed of deceit and surveillance that was 17th century Venice, all Robert would have had to have done was whisper ‘there’s bodies in Russo’s basement’ into any nearby guard’s ear. That would have been the end of their schemes. Would they really have taken such a massive risk here?
Secondly, Russo is apparently simultaneously the biggest crook in Venice and hugely in favour with the Doge, a senior spy and government official. Okay, so if Venice is a city where everyone knows everything about anyone, how has he managed to keep this a secret? The way Gregory describes Venice, it would have been impossible. Crime there was almost zero because of the incredibly high risk of getting caught and the incredibly draconian punishments. This just doesn’t add up and it feels just far too convenient for the plot: Sarah had to be able to get into the palace to find out what had happened to Robert, so Russo just happened to be bosom buddies with the Doge and able to plead his case? In Venice, it was illegal to lie, on pain of a long, slow death in the palace dungeons. But apparently they just waltz into the palace, admit to Sarah’s forged identity papers, admit that Russo lied to get Robert imprisoned, find out the story of what happened to Robert, and waltz straight back out again? Just what the hell?
Thirdly, Livia was just about the most obvious villain I have ever read. She may as well have been stroking a white cat on a swivel chair and chuckling softly to herself from the get-go. All black and red and false grief, she apparently fools half of London about her backstory and modus operandi. I just don’t buy it. Alys clearly isn’t a fool, having lived through one charlatan husband who jilted her, and having met all sorts of salubrious characters during her long career at the docks. Why on God’s green Earth would she have fallen hook, line and sinker for Livia’s bullshit? And why doesn’t Alinor lift a single finger to stop the wharf getting into mountains of debt due to Livia’s long yarns about flipping a huge profit selling ‘priceless antiques’, when she always needs someone else to foot the bill? Alinor behaves ridiculously passively, and it’s extremely out of character for her. She knows Livia’s no good from the start, yet continues letting her live in their house, swanning around, taking and not contributing, when money has always been tight? It seems to be just for the sake of the story, and Gregory is usually a better author than this. Alinor always knew she would never get the whole truth about Robert from Livia, so we would have had nothing to lose had she just kicked Livia out and sent Sarah to Venice to investigate anyway.
The New England thread is the only one which comes close to believable, and I’m confused about why Gregory decided to include it in this book. There’s no real connections between the New England storyline and the European ones throughout the entire novel, and no real common themes either. I don’t mind a novel which skips and jumps between different people, places or even time periods, but not without rhyme or reason. The threads are supposed to come together by the end, and they don’t here. I won’t be getting the third novel in the Tidelands series if one appears.