Book Review: Violeta by Isabel Allende

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Set in an unnamed South American country, Violeta is the rollercoaster story of a strong and determined woman, a woman who battles dramatic changes in destiny. Violeta endures the ruin of her family, some less-than-perfect relationships, and almost permanent worry about her children. All the time she is doing her best to ensure her own survival – physical, economic and emotional – and that of her extended family and those who have befriended her along the way.

What emerges is a portrait of an unconventional woman who meets life head-on and who will do whatever it takes to survive. Violeta’s life is mirrored by the tangled politics of Latin America in the 20th century. Isabel Allende – who has first hand knowledge of these events – draws a picture of the ruthlessness and corruption of the different regimes, of the frequent “disappearances”, and of the way that individual fortunes could rise and fall with the volatility of the times. She does not hesitate to point a finger at United States interference in the affairs of other countries, or at those who turned a profit from the conflict.

The story is bookended by two pandemics, beginning with the Spanish flu in 1920 and ending with the Covid outbreak of 2020. Some aspects are eerily similar – the face coverings, the restrictions on movement, and the paranoia – but there is an added level of brutality in 1920.

The writing is so vivid that Violeta sometimes reads like an autobiography. Allende has obviously drawn on her own life experience, and the reader is tempted to speculate how much of the author resides in her protagonist. Despite the suffering, there are moments of joy and deep humanity, and the writing is often lyrical.

The novel contains some unforgettable characters. There is the unprincipled Julián, who “ran liquor, drugs, and girls, and provided other highly compensated services”. Miss Taylor, the English governess who turns out to be a free-thinking Irishwoman. And the staunchly loyal Torito, who is anything but the simple giant that he appears to be.

An added bonus is the way that different cultures are woven through the story. Close to home we have Yaima, the local healer who “was the link between the earth and the spirit world, with great knowledge of plants and shamanic rituals”, priests, businessmen and a colony of German refugees. But we also encounter a Norwegian bird-watching diplomat, the US underworld, and the brittle high-life of Havana…

A new title from Isabel Allende is always a treat, and I enjoyed every page of this book. Thoroughly recommended.

Violeta, Isabel Allende, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 9780593496206

Book Review: Navigating the Divide by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

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Navigating the Divide is a selection of writings by Linda Watanabe McFerrin, including poems, travel essays, short stories and extracts from her novels. However this is no conventional anthology. The fiction is jumbled up and scattered among the poems and travel writing, in a fashion which seems random but starts to form a pattern. The end result is a patchwork in which the poetry and the prose illuminate one another, a complete new work in itself.

Even in her prose writing it is clear that the author is a poet. The travel essays are like prose poems, playing with words and ideas, throwing up startling images. Her descriptions are sensuous: the city of Nice “like a thick grenadine, trickled over us”, and “coconuts, split, by the side of the road, a fetid smell, like graves turned over”.

The fiction conjures up a sense of place, describing Tokyo, or Haiti, or San Francisco, with a traveller’s eye. And the poems pick up the themes of the prose.

The “divide” of the title is much more than the gap between literary genres. The author uses her personal experience of two very distinct cultures – American and Japanese – to explore the gulf of understanding between different societies.  We see how contrasting responses to the same events – such as the juxtaposition of the American Halloween with the Hispanic Day of the Dead – can lead to a sense of alienation.

Then there is the divide between individuals, often a result of misunderstandings or trickery. People  may assume masks – formally during Halloween or Carnivale, or for the purposes of disguise or deception. The lone traveller may enjoy chance encounters with strangers, while wearing the mantle of loneliness.

Navigating the Divide deals with the big themes of life: love and loss and death. It is infused with a sense of spirituality, in all its forms. This is a fragmented world, one in which rational explanation co-exists with zombies and ghosts. There can be no answers to the questions posed by the book, because there is no single reality.

Navigating the Divide, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Alan Squire Publishing, 2019, 9781942892144

Book Review: Hideous Progeny By Vaughn Entwistle

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Hideous Progeny imagines a meeting between Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, and Andrew Crosse, a scientist and early experimenter with electricity. In this version of events, Mary’s writing was inspired by her attendance at a lecture delivered by Crosse, and she is visiting him in later life in an attempt to lay the ghosts that have dogged her ever since.

Over the course of a day we see flashbacks to Mary’s earlier life, experience a severe storm and mind-boggling experiments, and witness a local mob trying to destroy the “wizard” Crosse and his unholy studies. Meanwhile, a parallel narrative moves to the final months of Mary’s life, when her brain tumour is advanced and she is slipping in and out of consciousness.

The novel takes us through the (mainly tragic) events of Mary’s life. It references her journals and the lives of those close to her: her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and her children, most of whom did not live for very long. Lord Byron haunts the pages, and his daughter Ada Lovelace features in the story.

However, this is in no sense a biography. It is more an exploration of an inner life, a portrait of a woman haunted by the past – not just her lived past but also her fictional creation.

Like Frankenstein itself, Hideous Progeny is a Gothic novel, with an electric thunderstorm, scientific experiments, hallucinations, and intruders with malevolent intent. As with all the best Gothic tales it has supernatural – or at least fantastical – elements. It is multi-layered, bringing together Mary’s life and work with contemporary ideas about science and religion, a blend of knowledge, ignorance and superstition. We are sometimes left to wonder what is real and what is the product of Mary’s fevered imagination, as her brain tumour and increasing use of laudanum take their hold.

There are clear parallels with Frankenstein: “hideous progeny” is Mary’s own reference to her novel – both the book and the monster within it. The looming presence that always hovers around the periphery of Mary’s vision is the ghosts of her past and the monster she created. “Your story left me lost and alone, wandering in a frozen wilderness,” the monster tells her. “So I stole from you all that you have ever loved… I am within you… a malevolence growing in the brain that spawned me.”

Finally I was left to wonder, what would Mary Shelley have made of this book?

Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and her Monster, Vaughn Entwistle, Masque Publishing, 2020, 9780982883099

Book Review: The Infernal Riddle Of Thomas Peach By Jas Treadwell

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In 1785 the solitary and mysterious Thomas Peach is living in an isolated house in the Somerset countryside. No-one knows anything about him – his family, his source of income or why he keeps a locked trunk full of books he never seems to read. Or even whether his wife – who lives in an invalid state in an upstairs room, and has never been seen by anyone apart from Peach himself – actually exists.

Book cover with brown background and black marks, with statement that Nothing is as it appears

Things start to change when he loses his income and is forced to seek the company of others. As a consequence, he meets the enigmatic Clarissa Riddle, who is said to be possessed of demons. As events unfold, the reader is left to wonder what exactly is going on…

The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach is written in the style of the 18th century, with much exposition, addressing the reader and directing the reader’s thoughts. It frequently references the classics, particularly Richardson’s Clarissa. However the book it most reminded me of was Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a long rambling work in which the story – such as it is – unfolds slowly amidst a long stream of narrative.

I have to confess that the discursive style made me impatient and that the initially intriguing mysteries were too slight to maintain my interest. I did enjoy the descriptions of the social life of the time, particularly the gentlemen’s club in Bristol. And I liked the character of Arabella Farthingay (it would have been good to see more of her in the story).However I was not entirely convinced by Clarissa Riddle, or by the conclusion of the tale.

This book might appeal to devotees of 18th century literature. However I think that some readers might be put off by the style and the slow pace of the narrative.

The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach by James Treadwell, Hodder & Stoughton, 2021, 9781529347326

Book Review: The Kingdoms By Natasha Pulley

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It is 1898 and London – now renamed Londres – is ruled by the French. In this version of history Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars: the aristocracy has been abolished, but slavery has not. Now there is a wave of strange and unexplained amnesia. One of the amnesiacs is Joe Tournier, a slave who happens to have a genius for engineering.

Book cover - The Kingdoms

With no memory of his past Joe is always searching for the missing element of his life, guided only by flashes of the past: a man who waits and a woman called Madeline. When he receives a mysterious postcard sent a hundred years earlier he finds himself drawn to a remote Scottish lighthouse, and a sequence of unpredictable but bizarrely logical adventures.

The Kingdoms is a sort of mixture of alternate history, time travel and steampunk. As we move backwards and forward in time we see different possibilities: societies that have been shaped in different ways, and lives that could have been lived but were not.

Joe is diagnosed with paramnesia, “the blurring of something imaginary and something real… the sense you’ve seen something new before”. But in this case his hallucinations may be grounded in reality, a manifestation of a different life he could have lived.

I have enjoyed all of Natasha Pulley’s novels, but I think I liked this one the best. I could empathise with the characters (even in their occasionally brutal moments) and the story was full of ambiguity.

It posed some intriguing questions. What would Britain have been like if it had lost at Trafalgar and Waterloo? Better or worse, or just different? How far can brutality be justified in the pursuit of a greater good? And, of all the paths our lives could have taken, is one more “real” than the others? Or can different versions exist concurrently? A great read and thoroughly recommended.

The Kingdoms, Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury, 2021, 9781526623119

Book Review: Land Of Big Numbers By Te-Ping Chen

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Land of Big Numbers is the debut collection of short stories by Te-Ping Chen, a journalist who has worked in China, Hong Kong and the US. Most of the stories take place in China, but some follow the fortunes of Chinese ex-pats in America. They cover subjects as diverse as a politically radicalised student, a magical fruit with strange powers, and a would-be inventor who builds machines from bits of cast off rubbish.

Land of big numbers book cover - red background with yellow writing

Whatever the subject matter, the stories share some big themes. A sense of alienation runs through the book: commuters jostle one another on trains; parents and children fail to understand one another; families are scattered; and people migrate to anonymous cities without knowing what they are looking for. Even those who move to the US cannot escape a feeling of dissociation. It is a feeling that is summed up in the image of the house on a cliff, a dingzihu or isolated house that has been cut off from its neighbours and whose inhabitants are trapped with no way out.

At times the stories seem dystopian. We have a city where visitors are obliged to wear a card that “synced with the city’s sensors and recorded the bearer’s activity”; piped music designed to “soothe tempers”; and electronic games played like sport in a stadium packed with spectators. We have the chilling statement that “if you want to understand your own country, then you’ve already stepped on the path to criminality”. And a group of people stuck for months in an underground station, literally trapped by mindless bureaucracy.

But at the same time we have the minutiae and small pleasures of everyday life. There are kindnesses towards friends and neighbours, flowers left for a dead man, and food raised in a bucket for the inhabitants of the dingzihu house. And people can still dream, whether of love or of riches, of the perfect invention or of an unknown, but better, future.

The stories in Land of Big Numbers are sometimes dark, sometimes humourous, sometimes fantastical. They are small cameos of Chinese life and Chinese people, a window into a very different culture. I look forward to seeing more from this author.

Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Scribner UK, 2021, 9781471190599

Book Review: The Other Daughter By Caroline Bishop

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The Other Daughter is Caroline Bishop’s first novel, a multi-period story set in England and Switzerland. In the present day Jess has travelled to Switzerland in search of answers to questions about her own life. Meanwhile, back in the 1970s, her mother, Sylvia, is trying to forge her career as a journalist. In the course of her work she meets some Swiss women who are fighting for the most basic rights.

The background to the novel is the struggle for women’s rights in the 1970s. It looks back to a time when Swiss women had only just got the vote and were still fighting for legal recognition. Women in Britain had more rights, but society and social expectations still needed to catch up. An additional element is the scandal of the “forced placement” scheme in Switzerland, in which children were removed from poor families and sent to work on farms, sometimes in brutal conditions.

This is also a story about family secrets and personal identity. Secrets are gradually revealed as the book progresses: Jess has had some shocking revelations, but there are more to come. She knows that she was born in Switzerland, and that there is a mystery around the circumstances of her birth, and she is determined to find out more. But at what cost?

The novel poses many questions. How important is it to know the truth? And what makes us what we are? What would have happened if an alternative path had been taken? As the publisher’s blurb describes it, “you only get one life – but what if it isn’t the one you were meant to live?”

I found this a satisfying and absorbing book. I particularly enjoyed the historical aspect – although I previously knew something of the struggles of Swiss feminists, I was completely unaware of the child placement scheme. And, at the same time, the personal stories of Jess and Sylvia created a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down – a recommended read!

The Other Daughter, Caroline Bishop, Simon & Schuster, 2021, 9781471190056

Book Review: Unto This Last By Rebecca Lipkin

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Unto This Last is the story of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his troubled relationship with his student Rose La Touche, an obsession that begins when Rose is ten years old. It is also the story of his uneasy relationships with others who are close to him, in particular his parents and Effie, to whom he was once married.

The background to the novel is Ruskin’s growing fame as an art critic. He also becomes known as a teacher, guest lecturer, and an Oxford professor. At the same time he sees himself as a social reformer, with his own particular brand of socialism. He is concerned to improve the lives of the poor, but even more intent on enriching all lives through art and education. “Man should not desire to be rich, but content,” he says, as he urges his students to engage with nature, to see clearly what is before them. For him, art is not an accomplishment, but a fundamental means of communication.

As the book progresses we follow Ruskin on his travels, to the Lake District and to France and Switzerland. And to Venice, which provided the inspiration for one of his most famous works, Stones of Venice. We also meet other members of the Victorian cultural elite. Primarily these are artists: Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgiana, and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But there are others, including the free-thinking intellectuals Thomas and Jane Carlyle.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, including those of Rose and of Effie, the subject of Ruskin’s ill-conceived marriage. This enables the reader to feel the frustration of others when dealing with him. What emerges is a picture of a complex man, brilliant and charismatic but often flawed. The Ruskin of this book has an inclination towards melancholy and is prone to fits of madness.

We come to know a man who is more at ease in nature and among old buildings than with people, hence his yearning for the unattainable Rose. Clearly the present is influenced by the past: Ruskin’s character has been formed, not just by his genius, but also by his regimented childhood and his domineering mother. And, like everyone around him, he is constrained by the strictures of Victorian society.

However, it is sometimes hard to have much sympathy with Ruskin, with his irascibility, his mercurial temperament, and his particular way of viewing the world and other people. He is described as warm and generous, but it seems to be a warmth towards humanity as a whole, while his largesse is often funded by his father. Those who are closest to him don’t always fare so well.

Unto This Last is an extensively researched novel, full of detail. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one man and his social milieu. I knew little about John Ruskin before I began reading, but I am now tempted to read some of his works for myself.

Unto This Last: A Novel, Rebecca Lipkin, The Book Guild Ltd, 2020, 9781913208820

Book Review: The Boy Who Saw In Colours By Lauren Robinson

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The Boy Who Saw In Colours is set in Germany during the Second World War. It is the story of two brothers who – despite their Jewish father – are selected for one of Hitler’s elite boarding schools for Nazi youth.

Josef, the protagonist, is a misfit in his new surroundings: as well as being half Jewish he is gay, and he prefers painting to fighting. We see the life of the school and the unfolding events of the war through his eyes, sharing his experiences and those of others around him, including his younger brother Tomas.

The central motif is of painting and colours: sudden bursts of colour permeate the story.

The premise of the story is interesting and there were some promising themes. I liked the contrast between the misfit Josef and his more compliant, people-pleasing, brother. There is an emphasis upon the human cost of the elite schools, their effect upon young lives. And there the narrative of an inarticulate boy who communicates through paint and colours, and a story of adolescent love.

Yet I felt that there were several missed opportunities. I would have expected most of the boys at the school to have become hardened by the regime (that, surely, was the purpose of the elite schools), but there was little evidence of the characters developing or changing. And the story wasn’t shocking enough. Given that this was wartime, there should have been more casualties among the central characters and their families.

However, my main problem with this book was with the way it was written. There was much more telling than showing, with no subtlety in the way the tale was rolled out. The reader was told what to think at every turn. And the main conceit of the book – Josef’s synesthesia – felt as if it was superimposed upon the story rather than an integral part of it.

That is not to say that there were not good parts to the writing. Some sections and phrases held potential, but generally the writing felt raw and unpolished. This may have been the author’s intention, but it didn’t really work for me. I was never drawn into the story, and as a consequence I didn’t have much empathy for the characters and never felt the tragedy of their fate. Overall, I thought that The Boy Who Saw In Colours had some good ideas, but that they were not fully developed.

The Boy Who Saw In Colours is published by the author, 2020.

Book Review: The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

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The Rose of Sebastopol was first published in 2007. It has now been reissued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, and the World Health Organisation’s global Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The “Rose” of the title is Rosa, who is spirited and strong-willed, and chafes against her conventional Victorian upbringing. Her only ambition is to be a nurse (or even a doctor), an ambition that eventually plunges her into the midst of the Crimean War. Her story is told from the point of view of Mariella, Rosa’s cousin and best friend. Quiet and submissive, Mariella’s main concerns are her needlework and her love for Henry Thewell, an eminent physician. Yet she finds herself on an extraordinary journey, travelling to Italy and then on to the Crimea.

Although it couldn’t have been predicted, the reissue of this novel is timely. Its themes of medicine, contagious disease and the control of medicine speak to us as we battle with a global pandemic. Florence Nightingale is only seen at a remove, but her work in trying to ensure hygiene and discipline in the military hospitals is central to the story. At the same time, we see conditions in London hospitals, and attempts to keep cholera at bay. In a statement that now seems prescient, Mariella tells us that “nobody in their right mind would encourage frail old ladies to move in together during a season of cholera”.

War is another theme. I knew little about the Crimean War before I read this novel and it was interesting to see the action from close up, observed by those who were not themselves fighting. And to watch the changing reactions of those at home in England, moving from unwavering support to doubt and confusion.

But it is not all war and medicine. There is a strong storyline, centred around the relationship between Rosa and Mariella, and the men who complicate their lives. This is really the story of Mariella’s personal journey, and of the part that Rosa plays in that journey. In response to reader feedback, the author has added an extra chapter to the end of the book, as well as a short introduction. Personally, I would have been happy without the extra chapter, but others may disagree. Either way, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Rose of Sebastopol, Katharine McMahon, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2020 (revised edition), 9781474616843