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

Book Review: The Age of Witches by Louisa Morgan

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The Age of Witches is a tale of witchcraft in late 19th century New York; of two different traditions of magic; and of the ways in which magic impacts upon its practitioners and those around them. It is the story of the descendants of Bridget Byshop, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. Harriet, descended from Bridget’s daughter Mary, is in the tradition of a wise woman, making traditional remedies and helping others. Whereas Frances, a descendant of Bridget’s second daughter, wants to use her powers for her own advancement. Both women have an interest in the future of Annis, who is Harriet’s great-niece and Frances’ stepdaughter.

The story moves from New York to England, taking in fashionable London and an impoverished country estate in Dorset. As the action progresses Annis, who prefers horses to polite society, and who has no wish to marry, starts to learn about her family’s heritage, and has to make decisions about her future. Decisions that may put her at odds with her ambitious stepmother. Ultimately this is the history of three strong willed women, battling for survival in what is still a man’s world.

I enjoyed Louisa Morgan’s earlier novel A Secret History of Witches, and I found this one equally engrossing. In both cases the author starts from the premise that witchcraft and magic are real, that they are necessary tools for women in a society where men hold all the power. But their magic is rooted in the everyday: Harriet’s remedies are based on herbs and other plants, and she emphasises the importance of words and intentions. And Frances’ maleficia is used as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, ordinary sexual attraction.

One of the pleasures of this book is the descriptions of the herbs that Harriet gathers, and the mixing of the remedies. Another is the character of Annis, a determined yet principled young woman, and her prickly relationship with James, the English aristocrat her stepmother intends her to marry.

The Age of Witches is a must for anyone who enjoys novels about witchcraft. It is also recommended as a work of historical fiction, with strong characters and a compelling plotline.

The Age of Witches, Louisa Morgan, Orbit, 2020, £9.99, 9780356512570

Book Review: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

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The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to Natasha Pulley’s earlier novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Set in London and Tokyo in the late 19th century, it features Thaniel Steepleton, a synesthetic civil servant, linguist and aspiring musician. An assignment in Tokyo offers an escape from the London fog that threatens his health, but other types of danger await. His task is to investigate the rumours of ghosts that are circulating in the British Legation and elsewhere, but he is gradually sucked into a world of Japanese samurai and courtly tradition, political intrigue and a suspected murder.

It isn’t easy to categorise Natasha Pulley’s work. It is part steampunk, part speculative fiction and part historical. Some of it is real history, but it sometimes feels more like alternate history. The story is centred round 19th century science and technology, with clockwork, gas lamps and telegraph messages. Tokyo is beset by electrical storms, and scientists are obsessed with the idea of ether.

The book is full of memorable characters. There is Mori (the “watchmaker” of the earlier book), a clairvoyant who “remembered possible futures” and whose motives are often unfathomable. Then there is Six, Thaniel’s adopted daughter, rescued from the workhouse, obsessed with electricity and almost as inscrutable as Mori. And the delightful Takiko Pepperharrow, the actress and theatre-owner who is so much more than she seems. Along with a cast of minor characters, they are all decidedly modern in their behaviour and attitudes, but this does not detract in any way from the story.

One of the many pleasures of the book is the descriptions of London, with its gaslit underground stations, street urchins and strict social hierarchy. A world that Sherlock Holmes would have recognised. And there are moments to be savoured, particularly with Thaniel’s synesthetic descriptions – “the shade of paint… a pale cream, was the colour of the scritching noise that cheap phonographs made when violins lifted too high for the wax to record properly”.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is an ambitious novel, full of ideas, with several different strands. It is not a story to be read quickly, and as a reader it can sometimes be hard to hold on to everything that is going on. But it doesn’t matter too much: this is a book to play with your mind.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury, 2020, £12.99, 9781408885161

Book Review: The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino

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The Women at Hitler’s Table is based on the extraordinary true story of Margot Wölk. She was one of fifteen women in the Prussian town of Patsch who were employed to taste the food prepared for Adolf Hitler while he was at his nearby headquarters, the so-called Wolf’s Lair. This was to ensure the food had not been poisoned: if the women survived for an hour after eating, the food was fit to serve to Hitler.

The Woman at Hitler's Table book cover

In Rosella Postorino’s novel the central character is Rosa, one of ten food tasters. She is a glamorous Berliner who has come to stay at the farm belonging to her parents-in-law while her husband is away fighting. One strand of the story is that of the food tasters themselves, reluctant conscripts whose fear of poisoning becomes normalised, and who form shifting alliances with one another. Another strand is a clandestine, rather uncomfortable, love affair.  The story shows Rosa’s confusion and conflicting emotions. She is ill at ease in a country farmhouse, and worried about her husband. She struggles to fit in with the other food testers, but enjoys a brief friendship with Maria, a local aristocrat.

Of course, the person at the centre of events is Hitler himself, but we only ever see him at a remove. He is described as a sensitive man, who listens to opera and obsesses about his own health. He will not eat meat, because “he can’t stand the cruelty of the slaughterhouses”.

We get an insight into how ordinary Germans viewed the Nazis. They range from Rosa’s father, whose prospects were ruined by his refusal to join the party, to a group of women she calls “The Fanatics” on account of their blind devotion to Hitler. Others are indifferent, doing whatever is needed in order to survive. And the callous disregard with which the officers treat the food tasters is a reminder that many Germans lived in fear of their own leaders.

The novel raises some big questions. Can God exist, and can it be right to bring children into such a troubled world? The questions are reinforced by religious imagery. For instance, Rosa says “I would participate in the liturgy of the lunch room… an army of worshippers prepared to receive on our tongues a Communion that wouldn’t redeem us”.

Rosa’s narrative is mostly objective, showing her resignation to whatever fate throws at her. But the occasional jumbled sequence, recalling her childhood nightmares, emphasises the abnormality of her situation. Although I found the ending slightly rushed and unsatisfactory, it is perhaps an indication of how her wartime experience would continue to haunt Rosa for the rest of her life.

This is the first of Rosella Postorino’s novels to be translated into English from the original Italian. I suspect that we will be hearing more of her.

The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino, translated by Leah Janeczko. Harper Collins, 2019, hardback, £12.99, 9780008377274

The Secrets We Kept

Book Review: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

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Based on true events, The Secrets We Kept is set in the United States and Russia during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. It tells the story of Boris Pasternak and his banned masterpiece, Dr Zhivago and of attempts by the American intelligence services to smuggle the novel back into Russia. It is all part of a strategy to use literature as part of an ongoing propaganda campaign.

But behind the secrecy and the war of words are real human lives. In Moscow, Pasternak’s long-suffering mistress, Olga, faces the Gulag and an uncertain future. While in Washington we follow the lives of Sally and Irina, two female spies. Much of the action is observed through the eyes of the typing pool, a group of mostly university-educated women, who are denied more challenging work by virtue of their sex.

I was interested to hear Lara Prescott talking about her novel at a recent author event at Mr B’s Emporium in Bath. A former political consultant herself, she talked about the ways in which government use culture and words to influence ideas and feelings. As one of her characters says, “Back then, we believed books could be weapons – that literature could change the course of history”. But, as a member of the audience pointed out, the same methods are still being used today, even if the words have moved from the printed page to Twitter and other online platforms.

A central part of the book features the writing and publication of Dr Zhivago, whose plot owes much to the relationship between Boris Pasternak and Olga. Prescott said that this was one of her favourite novels (she was actually named after Pasternak’s heroine Lara…), but you don’t have to have read it to understand The Secrets We Kept. I haven’t read Dr Zhivago myself (although it is now on my reading list!), but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of Prescott’s novel.

The typing pool was another important element of the story. The author said she was interested in gender politics, and in the way in which some women achieved a high profile during the War but were relegated to anonymity afterwards. This lack of individuality is shown through an unusual “collective narrative”, in which the typists speak with one voice: “we typed a hundred words a minute and never missed a syllable… our fingers flew across the keys… we’d pause only to answer the phone or to take a drag of a cigarette…”

Of course, that ability to remain anonymous is what made women good spies. Sally and Irina are prized for their ability to mask their thoughts and feelings, and to change identity as the job requires.

This novel poses some big questions: what motivates a spy, and are words the most powerful weapons we have? But what I enjoyed most was the way it encapsulates the world of the 1950s. This was a bleak time for everyone. In Russia books were banned and freedom of speech was suppressed. In the US women were objectified by men and prevented from reaching their full potential (even the female spies were carriers or decoys, never decision-makers). And paranoia reigned. Not just fear of the Soviet Union, the appearance of Sputnik prompting headlines like “Russia Wins” and “End Days?”. But, closer to home, we watch characters hiding their sexuality, dreading exposure, job loss and social ruin.

This is a story of secrets, both national and personal. A story to be savoured and reflected upon.

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott, Hutchinson, 2019, hb, 456pp, £12.99, 9781786331663

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Book Review: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

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Interwar Berlin: the economy is in ruins, businesses are collapsing, and fortunes are being made and lost. People fear for their livelihood, and for Jews and homosexuals the stakes are even higher. At the same time Berlin is a place of unrivalled hedonism and fevered passions, a place to live in the moment, without regard to the future. It is inevitable that an atmosphere of suspicion should prevail: who is telling the truth, who might betray you, who can you trust?

It is against this background that Clare Clark has set her novel In the Full Light of the Sun. Told from the point of view of Julius, a middle-aged art critic; Emmeline, a young bisexual artist; and Frank, a Jewish lawyer, the story is connected by the mysterious art dealer, Matthias. At times the presence of Matthias seems benign, at others sinister and Svengali-like. And there is always the shadow of his brother Gregor…

Although the work is fiction, it draws upon a real-life scandal that shocked the Berlin art world. The action centres around the discovery of a number of previously unknown works by Van Gogh. At first they are authenticated, but later they are declared to be forgeries. Questions abound. Are they genuine or not? Was Matthias, the dealer, aware of the uncertainty? If they are fakes, who is the artist?

Of course the big question is: who knows where the truth lies, and how can we ever be certain? It is this question that is at the centre of the novel. The story begins with the collapse of Julius’ marriage, and moves through scenes of lies, betrayal and the abuse of trust. But love, friendship and family ties continue to flourish, sometimes in surprising ways.

Art is a central motif. The language of art permeates the description of places – “in the chiaroscuro candlelight” – and of people – “sleepy Modigliani eyes”. The unbridled passion of Van Gogh contrasts with the emotional repression of Julius, his biographer. We are left wondering which is the more alive – the people or the art.

Ultimately, as Julius says, “art is a lie that helps us see the truth”. But unless, in the words of Van Gogh, we stand “in the full light of the sun”, part of that truth will remain hidden from us. An excellent and thought-provoking novel.

In the Full Light of the Sun, by Clare Clark. Virago, 2019, £16.99, hb, 424 pp, 9780349010823 (Also avoilable on Kindle)

Book Review: The Magick of Master Lilly by Tobsha Learner

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The Magick of Master Lilly tells the story of the English Civil War from the perspective of William Lilly, an influential astrologer in an age when magic and witchcraft were increasingly held in mistrust. Beginning with a summons to read the King’s star chart, the book takes in a secret cabal of astrologers, a forbidden love affair, and the bloody conclusion of the War.

Sandwiched between the colourful Tudor and Restoration periods, the first half of the 17th century and the Civil War are comparatively neglected by historical novelists. Yet the era is of pivotal importance in English history and in Tobsha Lerner’s hands it becomes a fascinating period in its own right. What I liked best about this book was the picture it built up of mid-17th century England. London in particular is shown as a place of fear and confusion and rumour, where death roams the streets and food is often in short supply. Elsewhere suspicion rules the cities and the countryside is lawless. The witchfinder is hard at work, and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans are intent on stamping out Catholicism, idolatry and magical practices. Pleasures of every kind seem to be threatened.

Central to the story is William Lilly and his craft. The book is a fascinating exploration of magic and astrology, although Lilly seems to succeed as much through politics and guile as by magic, and he is not above trickery on occasion. He is at pains to point out that the stars are just a guide – “it is important that the Philomath must perform his art with morality and discretion” – and that there are limitations to magic.

The politics of the time are interesting. The members of Lilly’s secret society of astrologers have different allegiances but are united in their desire for peace and in their need to protect their profession from persecution. Lilly himself is inwardly Puritan but outwardly bipartisan, whereas his lover Magdalene – also a member of the society – is a Catholic. The author makes frequent use of masks, both in the society and at masked balls, to illustrate the need to hide both inner thoughts and public identity.

I would occasionally have liked a bit of explanation, for instance of the witchfinder’s bodkin. And I found the slightly archaic language a bit irksome. But these are minor quibbles: The Magick of Master Lilly is recommended reading for anyone who wants to know more about life during the Civil War, or about 17th century magic.

The Magick of Master Lilly is published by Sphere, 2018. ISBN 9780751562132

Book Review: Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

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Painter to the King is the story of the artist Diego Velázquez and his life at the 17th century court of King Philip IV of Spain. It tells of a bored and incompetent king and his struggle to produce a living heir. And of a court which grows more splendid as the King becomes more languid, more of a puppet for his greedy and ambitious advisors.

Yet is it not a story in the conventional sense. The narrator takes the action, such as it is, from the paintings of Velázquez, studying the canvases for clues. She observes the court through the painter’s eyes, trying to imagine how it might have been. Everything is inferred, rather than stated.

It takes a while to get used to the style, but once you do, this is an evocative and mesmerising read. Like a painting, it is full of minute and intimate detail, all of which adds up to the big picture. We, the readers, are drawn into the canvas, invited to enter the artist’s world. It is as if the figures are moving, a dog opens its mouth as if to bark…

This is a multi-layered book, covering a particular period of history, the King and his court, and the life of Velázquez himself. But it is also about the process of painting, and of observing. The artist is criticised by his contemporaries for being a mere observer, who records what he sees, but never creates anything new. We start to realise that, whatever the skill of the painter, a picture is just a moment frozen in time. All senses but sight are absent: the past is ghostly, leaving only shadows behind. So much of what we know about history is speculation and guesswork. Much of it is lost, or can only be glimpsed obliquely.

As a reader, you can scan the meaning, or observe the detail. Or, as with a painting, you can zoom in and out. Painter to the King is a novel to challenge you, but also one to savour, to take pleasure in every image, detail and idea.

Painter to the King is published by Granta, 2018. ISBN 9781783783908

Book Review: Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

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Love and RuinIn December 1936 Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist, walks into a bar in Key West and meets Ernest Hemingway. Love and Ruin is the story of what happens next. It is an evocative, beautifully told tale of two people caught up in extraordinary circumstances and a passion that threatens to destroy them both.

After that first meeting Hemingway travels to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War. He persuades Gellhorn to follow him, thus launching her career as a war correspondent, a path she will pursue for most of the rest of her life. Perhaps inevitably, they become lovers, and later continue their relationship by living in clandestine seclusion in Cuba.

Gellhorn struggles with her attraction to Hemingway, but finds herself powerless to resist. He has a magnetic personality, drawing everyone he meets into his circle. He is shown as a difficult, and troubled, man who needs the limelight, to be at the centre of everything that is going on. He is “too driven, too dazzling. Too Hemingway”.

Although this is the story of an intimate relationship, it has a backdrop of calamitous world events. We move from the Spanish Civil War to the American Depression, and back to Europe in World War II. The author brings out the paradox that entering a war zone makes you more fully alive. When you are surrounded by death and danger the senses are heightened and you are forced to live for the moment. It is a time of camaraderie, heavy drinking and illicit passion.

Love and Ruin is told in the first person, from Gellhorn’s point of view. This gives it the quality of a memoir and at times I almost forgot it wasn’t Gellhorn herself speaking. I found the occasional shift to Hemingway’s viewpoint less convincing, an interruption to the narrative, but that is a minor quibble. Because the book is written in Gellhorn’s voice, it is generally sympathetic towards her. We see her struggling with Hemingway’s demons, and share her frustration as she finds herself living in his shadow. However, I was left wondering whether a relationship between two such driven and powerful personalities could ever have survived.

An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.


This review is part of a blog book tour. Follow the tour using hashtag #LoveAndRuin.