The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr takes place after the events in his Berlin Trilogy, the war is over and Bernie Gunther is trying, and failing, to run a hotel near Dachau. His wife has succumbed to madness, shut away in a hospital. An American intelligence officer brings a former Nazi guard by the hotel to dig up a box of valuables stolen from prisoners at the camp. This ends up entangling Gunther in a twisting, violent plot that organically switches direction several times throughout the book. Once the pieces fall into place, it seems impossible to have missed where it was going, but Kerr somehow pulls it off, letting us figure it out along with Bernie, becoming more and more amazed at the manipulations needed to pull it off.

I’m in a rush, and even if I weren’t, I can’t do justice to just how good this book is, on so many levels. The plotting is a lesson in itself, levels and levels, building on each other, no detail wasted. And Kerr’s language, oh wow, the way the man can put a sentence together is a thing to be marveled at. Take this passage:

And if that didn’t pan out, I would head to the Hofbrauhaus with my English dictionary and a packet of cigarettes and spend the evening with a nice brunette. Several brunettes probably- the silent kind, with nice creamy heads and not a hard-luck story between them, all lined up along a bartop.

Books I own, I mark passages I like and then turn down the bottom corner so I can find them again later. I got this book from the library, but there are still several pages turned down at the bottom corner, places to flip back to before I have to give it back to the library.

“Funny thing about forgiveness,” I said. “Someone has to look and act like they’re sorry for there to be any chance of real forgiveness.”

He couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and yet he had the look of a creature that killed weasels with his teeth. It was as if his mother had prayed for a baby terrier and changed her mind at the last minute.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” I said. “That’s my advice.”
“It’s bad advice, Herr Gunther,” she said. “Think about it. All those veterinary bills if the nag is no good. And let’s not forget what happened to those dumb Trojans. Maybe if they had listened to Cassandra instead of Sinon they might have done just that. If they’d looked the Greek gift horse in the mouth they would have seen Odysseus and all his Greek friends huddled inside.” She smiled. “Benefits of a classical education.”

It was something I had learned as an intelligence officer during the war: The essence of deception is not the lie that’s told but the truths that are told to support it.

That last one’s just good advice, all around. Kerr has a gift for description, he can put a few words together in a way you’d never imagine and a character or place or moment flies off the page, alive and kicking. He’s also able to work what must be massive amounts of research and background seamlessly into a story, teaching you things your teachers never mentioned, making it more real than they ever could. Without ever feeling like you’re being lectured. Be warned, the violence in this one gets very nasty, bones crunching, technicolor bruises. And the references to the Soviet troops raping their way across Germany will make your stomach turn. We’re so used to the high school history class black and white of WWII, we were the good guys, the Germans the ultimate bad guys. Kerr doesn’t dispute that, but he gives voice to individual stories of what it was like to be German at that time, in that place. In his books, good and bad are turned on their heads.


July 29, 2010. Tags: . Books. Leave a comment.

Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr

I worried about starting this one, as it’s a trilogy of books in one volume. Could I really handle reading three detective novels set in Nazi Germany back to back to back? Turns out, I wanted to tear through three in a row, because Kerr’s writing is so evocative. I had to keep checking that these were written recently and weren’t actually from the period. Kerr’s writing is full of hard-boiled slang, guns are “lighters,” cigarettes are “nails,” and those are some of the easy ones. Take this exchange from the first book, The March Violets, for example:

“First you plum the man with all that smart talk, and now you want to play the black horse. Pay the bastard”
“Look, if I don’t black horse him a little and drag my heels over paying him that kind of mouse, then he’ll figure I’m worth a lot more.”

It took me most of the first book to acclimate to the language, and the plot was rather convoluted, so I had a tendency to lose the thread from night to night, but I didn’t care because the characters and writing were so good I just did the reading equivalent of “smile and nod,” and followed along hoping I’d catch up again. The books are told from the point of view of Bernie Gunther, an ex-policeman in Berlin who chose to become a private eye rather than join the National Socialist Party. The first book, The March Violets, takes place during the Berlin Olympic games, and includes perfect details like SA officers removing anti-Semitic posters from display so as not to upset foreign visitors for the games. Gunther is hired by an industrialist to solve the murder of his daughter and son in law. The case twists in innumerable ways, involving blackmail of Party members, the criminal underground, mistaken identity, torture, and even has time for a romance. It is dark and violent, but worth it. I’m a good British girl, my father and aunts were evacuated from the UK to the US during the war to save them from being raised as Nazis if the Germans succeeded in invading Britain. And I grew up in US schools, so my view of the Germans in WWII was always pretty critical. When traveling through Europe during college, I happily quoted my cousin, “Why would you want to go to Germany? It’s full of Germans.” But as I’ve gotten older and learned more about what led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, I’ve found it much more nuanced and full of shades of grey. Even though Kerr is a modern writer, he captures the time and feel of this time in Germany, what people on the street were experiencing under Hitler’s rise in power.

The second book, The Pale Criminal, takes place in the summer of 1938. Gunther is recruited back to the Krippo, the Berlin Criminal Police, to help solve a series of killings of young women, perfect models of the Aryan race, that point to a serial killer on the lose. They want him back because he had been instrumental in catching a serial killer in the past. They have someone in custody who has “confessed” to the crime, but another was committed while the suspect was in jail. Gunther reluctantly goes back, getting a higher rank than the one he had when he left, and some autonomy to conduct the investigation as he sees fit. The police are hesitant to publicize the killings, as it could prevent further abductions of young girls but it could also spark riots as the killings follow a spurious method described as a Jewish “ritual” killing in anti-Semitic literature. Gunther is tasked to find the real killer, and fast, before there is panic in the streets or any more girls disappear. Again, the story winds through segments of Berlin society, from the SS officers enthralled with the occult, to closeted homosexual life in the city. As Gunther is having to work within a system he disagrees with, there is much friction between him and his superiors, and even between him and those working on his level. I don’t know whether it was a simpler story, or that I had gotten used to Kerr’s writing by this one, but I found it easier to follow.

The third book, A German Requiem, is set after the war, 1947, with Berlin patrolled by Russian soldiers. I never learned in school that the Russians basically raped their way across Germany after the defeat, and while Kerr has some Russian characters who display intelligence and cunning, he is very harsh on their methods, and clear on the brutality they enjoy inflicting on the locals under their control. Gunther is back in Berlin, after a stint as a Russian prisoner of war. He chose to go to the eastern front rather than work with the SS rounding up Jews, Communists, and others deemed un-German. He’s married, and his wife works at an American PX and is able to sneak food home for herself and Gunther. He’s approached by a Russian intelligence officer to take a case trying to prove the innocence of a former friend from the Kripo who is under arrest for killing an American soldier in Vienna. Gunther takes the case, in part because he learns what his wife has been doing to procure those extra rations. He is sent to Vienna by the Russian, with a cover story of dealing in cigarettes. He has to navigate with the Americans, the Austrians, and the Russians, who all want something from him and who would all be willing to let him die if it would be convenient. I’m still not sure what the exact difference is between a chocolady and a prostitute, but I am clear that any woman who fell into such a life after the war is never to be judged for doing it if it meant the difference between death and meager survival. This book is more of an espionage thriller than straight detective novel, with the various factions crossing and double crossing each other. There are a couple scenes of graphic violence and torture, not for the faint of heart. They add to the feeling of fear and doom hanging over these people, the dread that they could be rounded up at any time on the thinnest of charges and put to death.

I enjoyed Kerr’s books, and plan on reading more as soon as I can clear up the odd block on my library card. For those already fans of Kerr’s works, I recommend J. Robert Jane’s series about the team of St-Cyr of the Surete and Kohler of the Gestapo, investigating murders in occupied Paris. Janes’ writing can get convoluted at times, but the series is a brilliant and fascinating look at a time and place most of us know little about. It dwells in the grey areas of life, the little concessions you have to make to achieve a better good. It’s the kind of series ripe for adaptation by the BBC/PBS.

June 6, 2010. Tags: . Books. Leave a comment.

Reading Circle

I’ve been on a reading binge lately.  I think making my way through Anna Karenina made me want to tackle some lighter books.  So I read a pile of murder mysteries.  What can I say, I’m a happy person.

First, though, a few words on Anna Karenina.  I highly recommend the translation I read by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  If for no other reason than it has a big detailed list of characters and an explanation of the Russian use of patronymics.  I read a Boris Akunin novel a few years ago and finished it without ever knowing who the characters were because everyone has four names and the author uses them in various combinations at different times.  This translation also has good notes on the text.  As someone not up on 19th century Russian plow types these were useful.  I enjoyed the book, and found it much easier to read than I’d expected.  I did a liberal arts honors program in college, so I’ve read plenty of challenging works, but a 700 page classic of Russian literature is still a little daunting.  But Tolstoy’s writing is lovely and clear, very conversational.  He does like to go off on tangents, though.  Lots of discussion on the care and management of peasants for a book ostensibly about adultery.  I still can’t decide if I like Anna or not, but I don’t think Tolstoy could either.  I do know that I won’t be dressing up in a fur hat and boots like Blair Waldorf to role play Anna and Vronsky with my lover.  Being tortured by your feelings and desires and outcast from society aren’t really turn-ons for me.

I remember when I was a freshman in college buying books for class for the first time there were juniors in my program talking about a class on the Weimar Republic.  I thought they sounded so sophisticated and exotic, but the class wasn’t offered when I was a junior and I took ones on the Brontes and Victorian novels as historical documents instead.  Maybe I’m still trying to become as intellectual as those juniors in the book store because I’ve been looking out for books about Germany between the wars lately.  A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell is an interesting enough mystery set in Berlin in 1931.  It follows Hannah Vogel, a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt, as she tries to solve the murder of her brother Ernst, a cross dressing singer in a caberet.  She and Ernst have given their papers to a Jewish friend and her son to allow them to emigrate to New York, so Hannah can’t go to the authorities about Ernst’s death until she is sure her friends are safely across the Atlantic.  Soon after she discovers her brother’s death, a five year old boy turns up on Hannah’s doorstep claiming to be his son.  Anton even has a birth certificate naming Ernst as his father- and Hannah as his mother.  It’s a twisty story full of secrets and intrigue.  It’s not at the level of Alan Furst’s spy novels or even of J. Robert Jane’s fascinating series of books set in occupied Paris.  But it’s well written and fast moving, and the horrors of the rising Nazi party just nip at the edges of the story, drawing closer as it ends.

I’ve picked up novels by Denise Mina many times at the store but never actually bought one until Field of Blood. It’s set in 1981 Glasgow, with copy boy Paddy Meehan trying to work her way up to reporter at the Scottish Daily News.  She gets a sideways break when a three year old boy is murdered and one of the suspects is a young cousin of her fiance.  The city is horrified by the murder of Baby Brian at the hands of two young boys, and Paddy investigates the case, trying to find a story that will get her promoted to be a real journalist.  When another reporter uses family details Paddy told her in confidence to write her own story, Paddy’s family and fiance cut her dead, refusing to speak to her for a week.  The details of the Baby Brian case are well plotted, and the book is the kind you can’t put down.  But for me the interesting part of the book were the parts about Paddy, about being a young Catholic woman from a lower middle class background who wants something more than to be just a wife and mother, things her family can’t understand.

When you discover a new author and fall in love, you want to read all her books at once and save them to make them last longer all at once.  A wicked cold had me sleeping 18 hours a day for a week, and Cornelia Read’s A Field of Darkness did nothing to help me get back to falling asleep at a reasonable time.  I read half of it in one night, the rest the next, and that pattern held for her other two books.  Field introduces us to Madeline “Bunny” Dare, a reformed debutante from Oyster Bay, Long Island married to a rail worker and living in Syracuse, NY in 1988.  Dare works as a reporter for the local weekly, covering things like drink recipes and weekend getaways.  Her family’s money pretty much ran out with her parents, so Dare has grown up around the wealthy, going to boarding school and college with them, but on scholarship and in thrift store clothes.  When Maddy and her husband Dean go to his parents’ house for dinner, she hears the story of decades old murder of two girls, found in a field her father in law rents.  Years after the bodies were found, her father in law found a set of dog tags in the field but never turned them over to the police.  Maddy recognizes the name on the tags as that of her favorite cousin, and starts investigating to try and find out if he was involved before she goes to the police.  The story twists and turns all over the place, and sometimes loses its way, but what grabbed me and held me was Read’s writing, and Maddy’s voice.  I was marking passages, rereading sections just to savor the words.  Describing her father in law, Maddy says:

He kept it right on that sneaky edge where it was kind of funny if it was happening to anybody else, especially if they got huffy.  Then it was your turn to remember his knack for arming a joke with that rock-in-the-snowball touch of hurt.

It’s that kind of turn of phrase, that way of summing up a character in few words, that make Read’s books spark.  Read clearly based Madeline on herself, giving her the same history and backstory, down to making her debut at the Junior Assemblies in New York in her mother’s old dress.  I practically memorized The Debutante’s Guide to Life when I was 14 (I was an odd teen) and fell in love with Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan when it came out, so I reveled in the details of Maddy’s UHB life.  But even normal people who don’t know the significance of inheriting your grandmother’s collection of Belgian shoes can love these books.  Maddy is fully aware of what her family privilege has allowed her, and is penitent for the sins of her fathers.  She’s also snappy, snarky, sharp, and shameless if the need arises.  She’s the partner in crime we all wish to have- she’ll have your back and a witty comeback.  I got Read’s second book, The Crazy School, from the library, but ended up ordering it from Amazon anyway so I’ll have it to read again at will.  It has Maddy teaching at a private boarding school in the Berkshires for mentally ill or difficult teens that no other school will take.  It’s based on the DeSisto School where Read taught, and if even half of what she writes about went on it’s no wonder the state closed the place down.  Maddy’s fellow teachers and administrators are much nuttier than the students, and everyone has to attend weekly therapy sessions.  Anyone who’s had a bad therapist will enjoy Maddy’s diagnosing her as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse just because Maddy has perfect posture.  As someone who is bad at therapy, I was comforted to know that it really is due to my WASP upbringing and not a personal flaw.

Read’s most recent book, Invisible Boy, is different.  Maddy doesn’t investigate the case, she doesn’t find clues or break the mystery.  It’s more like an episode of Law & Order where we follow the person in the opening who finds the body through her involvement with the investigation and trial.  Maddy and Dean have moved to New York city, and Maddy meets a distant cousin at a party.  Her cousin has found an old family cemetery in Queens and asks Maddy to join her in clearing it of weeds and debris.  Maddy does, and finds the skeleton of a child hidden in the brush, his ribcage crushed.  Maddy works with the police, but it is they and the DA’s office who solve the case.  It’s a different approach to a mystery, and it works in this case.  The crime Maddy has uncovered is horrible, but all too common.  There are still witty quips and sharp writing, but this one leaves you feeling that there isn’t enough justice to go around, that bad things will always happen and the good guys don’t even know about all of them.

April 26, 2010. Tags: . Books. Leave a comment.

The Likeness by Tana French

I read Tana French’s debut, In The Woods, and thought it was one of the most innovative and gripping procedurals I’d ever come across.  Told first person by Detective Rob Ryan, it’s the story of a murder of a young girl in a Dublin suburb, and of the investigation by Rob and his partner Cassie Maddox.

The Likeness is a sequel of sorts.  It’s told by Cassie, who has left the murder squad and is now working domestic violence and dating another of the team from the first book, Detective Sam O’Neill.  She receives a frightened call from Sam one morning, asking if she’s alright, and asking her to meet him at a crime scene.  When she gets there, she’s greeted not just by Sam, but by Frank Mackey, her former boss when she worked undercover on a drug ring.  It’s not until she sees the body that she understands why they’ve called her there.  The dead girl looks exactly like her, and is carrying ID in the name of Lexie Madison, the alias Cassie and Frank constructed for the drug case.  Not only do they not know who killed this girl, they don’t know who she is.

Frank takes advantage of the fact that releasing photos of the dead girl to try and get an ID would lead to chaos in Cassie’s life to get Sam to postpone announcing the death and to just give out that the girl survived and is in a coma for a couple days while they dig for information.  He has more than that in mind, though.  With videos of Lexie and her close knit group of friends from her phone, and information garnered from statements of Lexie’s “known associates,” Frank wants Cassie to take on Lexie’s persona and slip into her life to solve her murder.

The fact of someone having a double, and that double turning up murdered in her own town, is a stretch.  But French handles it so deftly it is never an issue.  Cassie is a strong woman who has gone through a tragic mistake, and she’s eager to lose herself in a difficult case.  And Lexie Madison is a very difficult case.

The woman calling herself Lexie had been living with four other graduate students from Trinity in a tattered country house in a town outside Dublin.  The five were incredibly tight, closed off from others and content with themselves.  They moved between school and the house, not mixing with people in the town or the university.  Cassie spends a week with Frank, cramming to learn everything about Lexie, every like and dislike, every mannerism and inflection.  At the end of the week, “Lexie” is released from the hospital, and Frank and Sam bring her home to her friends at Whitethorn House.

The atmosphere of the world they’ve created at Whitethorn House is intoxicating.  It’s the English major’s dream of Utopia, of living in a big house in the country with like-minded friends, days and nights spent in reading, research, and discussion.  They cook together and work on fixing up the house, which was left to Daniel, one of the housemates.  Cassie is worried about passing as Lexie, but with the cover story that the coma left her with no memory of the attack, and possibly sketchy on other events before it, she has some leeway for mistakes.  Frank’s training was extensive, and she quickly falls into place as Lexie.  Lexie’s habit of nightly walks on her own give Cassie a time to call and check in with Sam and Frank, and she’s wired at all times so they can monitor what goes on in the house or at school.

Cassie soon learns the family dynamic of the house; Daniel is the father, Abby the mother, Justin and Rafe the brothers, and Lexie the little sister they needed to round out their family.  Having been orphaned at a young age and raised by a slightly distant aunt and uncle, Cassie basks in this tacked together family of friends.  She picks up information about Lexie and possible suspects in her murder, but instinctively keeps some back from Sam and Frank.

This was the second time I read this book, and after finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again a third time.  French fills the story with the atmosphere of a country garden on a summer’s day, lazing in the sun, insects buzzing in the distance.  You can lose yourself in it, just like Cassie loses herself in Whitethorn House.  The story progresses apace, but for much of the book it feels languid and thoughtful, as Cassie slides into Lexie’s life and routine.  It speeds at the end, as a cascade of events threatens the world Daniel has tried so hard to create.  The book is built on a theme of the mutability of identity, of the desire and ease to slip from one to another.  There are also elements about life in modern Ireland, even more interesting now that the Celtic Tiger has lost its teeth.  One of the rules of living in Whitethorn House is “No pasts,” but French shows that as hard as we may try, that’s an impossibility.

March 11, 2010. Tags: . Books. Leave a comment.

The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah

Sometimes I read too damn fast.  I was planning on this book lasting me a week, and instead I sucked it down in two nights.  The first night I stayed up far past when I should have been asleep because I was so engrossed in the story.  I almost skipped ahead to know what happened, just so I could get some sleep, but I was enjoying the writing and the way the story unfolded too much to ruin it.

The protagonist, Sally Thorning, is a rushed off her feet working mother of two, with a husband who doesn’t help as much as he thinks he does.  One night he calls her to watch a report on the TV about a woman who has killed her young daughter and then herself.  Sally is shocked by the crime, and then further shocked when she hears the details.  The previous year, Sally had met the husband of the dead woman on a trip and had an affair with him.  But the man on the TV, tears running down his face as he talks of his dead wife and child, is not the man Sally knew.  Sally writes an anonymous note to the police, and begins to investigate the deaths herself, trying to find out what she has become involved in without revealing her affair.

The police rush to the conclusion that the mother killed her child and then herself, in part because of diary entries they find on the mother’s laptop describing the exhaustion and frustration of being a mother.  But DC Simon Waterhouse has doubts.  There are inconsistencies in the diary, and a suit is missing from the husband’s closet.  He starts to pull apart the theory of this being a “family annihilator” killing.

The book rotates between Sally’s story (told in first person), DC Waterhouse’s, and the diary entries of the dead woman.  The diary is painfully blunt about the conflicting emotions of loving your child but wanting freedom from her annoying presence.  There are times when her behavior towards her daughter verges very closely on the cruel, but more often it is just the venting of a woman honest about being a bad mother, about not wanting to be a mother despite the love she feels for her daughter.

Except for the diary entries, the book moves forward chronologically, there’s no shifting back and forth in time to bring about the twist in the story.  It develops from elements clearly there from the beginning, elements that take on a darker and darker meaning as the book progresses.  The tension cranks up and doesn’t let up, compelling you to keep reading to find the answer and get a release.

March 4, 2010. Tags: . Books. Leave a comment.

Havana Nocturne by T.J. English

I heard about this book on NPR and it sounded fascinating, and after reading Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein last year I thought I’d broaden my knowledge of organized crime.  I watched a couple seasons of The Sopranos, studied The Godfather in film school, and know a bit about the mafia in Sicily from reading Andrea Camilleri’s mysteries, but, really, I know very little about the mob or organized crime.  English clearly does, and at times I felt I was reading a sequel to a book I hadn’t read.  The politics of organized crime were new to me, and I didn’t always follow all the players.

As a book about Cuba in the 1950’s, it’s fascinating.  The Mob owned the best hotels and casinos in Havana, with the help of the corrupt government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.  Havana was like Vegas, but tropical and exotic.  It was a playground of sex and excess.  English includes stories on various celebrities’ visits to Havana and what they got up to, including a story of JFK and an orgy.

I wish he’d included more on how the economics of the Mob-run tourist industry affected the average citizens of Havana.  There are stories of a few people who worked for Meyer Lansky and other bosses, but nothing about how people in Havana felt about their city being seen as a decadent tourist destination.  So when English covers the people of Cuba’s support for Castro and his Revolution, it’s hard to put in context except that he offered an alternative to Batista’s corrupt regime.  There’s no explanation for why some Cubans stayed and supported Castro, while others fled the country.  Not knowing the history of the situation, I would have like a little bit more.

Overall, though, it’s a well-written, very interesting book on a subject few people know much about these days.  And a primer on how far organized crime can go with a willing government as an accomplice.

March 2, 2010. Tags: . Books. Leave a comment.

Mennonite In A Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

This book didn’t make it into “Currently Reading,” because I tore through it in one sitting in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep.  And then immediately wanted to read it again, just to prolong the time with the author.

Rhoda Janzen was raised in a Mennonite community in northern California.  According the the primer in the back of the book, the Amish split from the Mennonites in 1693 because “the rest of us were too liberal.”  They’re strong on family values, love cooking, are anti-war, and anti-consumer.  The older generation of North American Mennonites grew up speaking Low German, so there are lots of interesting German words and phrases sprinkled through the book.  Even after the primer, I’m still not completely sure what the Mennonite lifestyle entails, but I know they can whip up a meal for twelve with five minutes notice, and that it will involve Borscht.

Janzen was a professor at a college in Michigan when a series of events led her to take a sabbatical and move back in with her parents for a time.  First, she had an undisclosed illness that lead to a hysterectomy.  She never planned on having children, so she wasn’t too upset about it, even though everyone told her she should be.  Second, her husband left her for a man named Bob he met on  Then she was in a traffic accident that left her with multiple broken bones.  That’s enough to make anyone run home to mom and dad.

Yet Janzen never feels sorry for herself.  Even when describing the antics her husband got up to before the divorce, when he was a charming bipolar who refused medication and screamed terrible things at her.  You can feel the pain these times caused her, but also the strength she has to overcome and live through them.  And then joke about them.  Her sense of humor about life is dark, wicked, and wondrous.  I can only hope to be as funny as she about the trials in my life.  It helps that she’s a poet, with a PhD from UCLA and a background in modern languages.  Her use of language is lovely, very conversational and meandering but precise in her words.

I’m not doing this little book justice with this review, because I just want to quote sections to show how brilliant it is.  It is a joy to read, thoughtful and funny.  Request it from you library, order it from Amazon, sit and read it at Barnes & Noble.  You won’t regret it.

February 15, 2010. Tags: . Books. 3 comments.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

This is one of those books with multiple entwined timelines and characters, where you won’t know all the answers until you’ve finished the book.  When a book’s story can stand on its own without that structure, it can add depth and nuance to the tale.  This book, though, just wouldn’t be as intriguing without the withholding of information allowed by the format.

The book starts out in London in 1913, with a little girl alone on a boat headed for Australia.  It then jumps to Brisbane in 1930, where Nell’s father tells her the secret he and her mother had kept from her for 17 years.  Then on to Brisbane in 2005, as Nell lies dying in the hospital tended by her granddaughter Cassandra.  A quarter of the way in the book jumps back to London in 1900, to tell the story of young Eliza Makepeace.  The book jumps between the stories of Nell, Cassandra, and Eliza, with the connections between them becoming clearer as it goes along.

Nell is the little girl alone on the boat to Australia, arriving there not knowing her name and with a suitcase holding only a dress and a book of fairy tales.  This is the secret her father tells her, that she was taken in by him and her mother and adopted.  Learning this leads Nell to search out her own history, to find out who she is and from whence she came.  Due to an illness with a high fever while on the boat from England, Nell has no memory of the time before she was adopted, only a hazy notion of a woman she knew as The Authoress.  When Nell dies, Cassandra finds out her grandmother has left her a home in Cornwall which she never knew she had.  She finds out the secret of Nell’s adoption from her great aunts at the funeral, and she continues the quest to find Nell’s origins.

The most interesting story is that of Eliza, whom we first meet as a wild young girl in London making her way by her wits, working in a rag and bottle shop and coming up with stories that enchant and terrify the other children.  Her mother, recently dead from TB, was from a good family, but had left wealth and prestige behind to run away with a sailor.  Eliza’s family eventually find her and try to tame her into a proper young Victorian lady and companion to her sickly cousin Rose.  That they are not entirely successful is what makes Eliza the best character in the book.  She continues making up stories, eventually getting published, and a few of the stories are included in the book.  Eliza is as wild as her flaming red hair, playing on the rocks down on the coast near her Cornish home, befriending the servants and fishermen, and coming home to tell Rose of her adventures and to annoy her prim and proper aunt with her antics.

I have a terrible habit of skimming through books to find out how they end.  In part it’s because I will stay up half the night reading to find out what happens, and I have enough trouble with insomnia as it is.  It’s also because of my already stated lack of patience.  Sometimes a book is so engrossing I don’t cheat, sometimes I cheat and don’t bother finishing the boring thing.  If a book is truly well written, I can skim and still enjoy how the story works out, just like you can love rereading an old favorite even though you know the story.  I totally skimmed the last half of The Forgotten Garden to allow myself to sleep, and really only finished it to follow Eliza’s story.  Nell, despite the secret of her birth, is quite boring, and Cassandra is mostly interesting because of what she discovers about her grandmother.  I just wish Morton had stayed with Eliza, and not tried to manufacture a mystery with the multiple plot threads.  This would make a good vacation book, with more substance than a beach read so you won’t be embarrassed to be seen reading it, but not so deep as to distract from your relaxation.

February 9, 2010. Tags: . Books. Leave a comment.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I love Sarah Waters’ books. Fingersmith is one of my personal favorites, a Victorian tale of intrigue and missing heirs with exhilarating twists and turns. Stephen King put The Little Stranger on his list in EW of his favorite books for last year, and his description made me want to read it immediately. But I couldn’t find it in B&N. It must be in that weird time, when a book has been out in hardback too long to be readily stocked, but it’s not in paperback yet. I tried getting it from the library, but the line for holds was so long it would be June before I got to read it. In the meantime, I read Waters’ The Night Watch, which was beautiful, so elegantly written, and sad. But that’s another post. I finally broke down and ordered the British paperback from The Book Depository , a brilliant site for getting British books at American prices with no shipping charges.  I was prepared to devour this book, to love it.

The story is set in post-war England, told by a doctor in a rural town.  He is called upon to treat a member of the local gentry, in the house where his mother was once a servant.  The Ayres have lived in the grand Georgian house Hundreds Hall for centuries, but have fallen on hard times and are barely getting by, with their house crumbling around them.  Dr. Faraday becomes a friend of the family, and is witness to the strange and worrying events that begin to befall them.  The son, Roderick, tells him of seeing objects move in his room, and that he feels there is a Presence in the house that means them harm.  Faraday puts it down to nerves, and helps have Roderick committed after his room catches fire.  Even though the fire seems to have started in multiple places, Faraday believes Roderick responsible.  Then other things start happening.  The daughter, Caroline, is plagued by late night phone calls.  The bells in the house begin ringing for servants when no one is in the room.  An old speaking tube starts making noises.  Is there a Presence in the house, or can it all be explained rationally?  Faraday and his fellow doctors are disbelievers, but the Ayres family and their servants know there is Something in Hundreds that means them harm.

I liked it a lot, but I didn’t love it like I thought I would.  I have a weakness for English Country House stories of any kind, and the blurbs warning of needing to sleep with the light on after reading it made me think I was in for a good scare.  Actually they had me worried I’d picked a bad “read before bed” book.  It’s not scary, though, more eerie and unsettling.  I slept fine, with the lights off.  Its substory of the downfall of the landed gentry in postwar England is the more interesting and poignant.  The Ayres are a good family, and want to keep their home and farm functioning in a world that no longer needs them.  In a more rested state I could go on about the metaphors of the decaying house and the decay of the strict class system, but I’ll spare you as I’m too tired to write it well.  Waters doesn’t hammer it home blatantly; she simply writes the story and leaves the reader to make the connections or not.  Subtlety is rare in books about the class system, and greatly welcome.  Waters shows affection for the Ayres, even in their obliviousness to the lives their servants must have led.  They’re not bad people, they’re outdated and unable to adjust to a new regime.

The ghost story is creepy.  Thinking about living through such events could easily keep you up at night.  But by having Faraday narrate the book, we’re kept at a cynical distance to the events, and they don’t resonate as strongly.  Faraday can’t decide if he believes, so in a way, the book can’t either.

January 30, 2010. Tags: . Books. 3 comments.