Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

The trouble with history is that we can never really know how
accurate it is.  And this goes
double for historical fiction.  The
answer for Hilary Mantel in her Tudor novel Wolf
Hall
?  Give the narrative to
the smartest character in the room, and see what happens.  Thomas Cromwell told stories for a
living.  He wasn’t a playwright,
but a lawyer.  And he was lawyer to
the King of England, charged with doing whatever was necessary to give the king
what he wanted, even if that was getting rid of the king’s old wife, to make
room for a new one.  But the story
doesn’t end at the king’s palace.

Wolf Hall succeeds as a novel because
Mantel puts herself in the position of her protagonist and chooses to tell—not
historical truths, as we like to imagine they exist—but the truths of human
nature.  She does not tell
Cromwell’s story as part of a sweeping history, but in small, mostly domestic
moments in time, the way a life is lived. 
Mantel’s strength as a historical novelist is in admitting that we can
never truly know what happened, who said what, how she reacted, and she revels in
that knowledge.

Through
Cromwell, Mantel narrates in a Modernist, present-tense, stream-of-consciousness
style that defies sweeping generalizations and revisionary histories, revealing
the fractious, uncertain nature of the time.  The Cromwell of Wolf
Hall
is pragmatic, hopeful, yet often pessimistic, and to put the narrative
in the hands of a character who can’t possibly know how history will play out
draws the reader’s attention to those small moments between characters, the
human stories within this larger-than-life historical period.  This is a novel of control, which both
Mantel and Cromwell exercise with confidence and brisk efficiency.

Anyone
with an interest in Tudor or early-modern English history should of course
check out this novel.  Those who
enjoy period fantasy with subtle characterization and dubious heroism or
villainy will find this novel a compelling read.  Wolf Hall is a
triumph of language and understated storytelling, without a word out of place,
which will appeal to anyone who reads and enjoys modernist literature a la Kate
Atkinson, Sarah Waters or Emma Donoghue.

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Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran

Beach readers, look no further.  Moran has written a fictionalized tale
of the Queen Lakshmi of the Kingdom of Jhansi in northern India during the
English conquest.  She tells her
story through Sita, who has a tale of her own to tell, and relates to the
reader the last days of Queen Lakshmi’s rule and the brutal wars that
accompanied England’s annexing India to their empire.  Sita tells how she has become one of the Durgavasi, the
Queen’s ten female guards skilled in both weapons and their ability to
entertain the queen.  It’s a
fascinating history and there are plenty of ups and downs to keep the story
moving.

Rebel Queen follows in Moran’s practice
of taking historical women and spinning a story around them.  She includes a note at the end of the
novel of which historical aspects she used, what was unclear, and what she
changed for the story.  Readers
interested in this period of history will appreciate the research that went
into the novel.  Sita’s is also a
moving story because she provides a connection to what is happening to the
people of India during this period through the family she has left behind in
her village.  She begins the novel
by telling how she got to the Durgavasi, revealing many further aspects of
India culture, especially concerning women’s roles.

 Moran
provides beautiful descriptions of clothing, architecture, and food.  Sita, who is telling the story through
memoirs, often interrupts the narrative to address the reader directly about
some aspect of Indian custom or culture, which may be welcome to some readers
not familiar with culture or terminology. 
Moran’s narrative voice displays a practiced comfort with storytelling,
though some readers may find her habit of explaining everything, rather than
letting the reader experience and infer from the point of view of the
characters, a bit trying at times. 
Sita’s manner of engaging with and talking about other characters, even
the Rani Lakshmi, can be somewhat superficial and uneven, making Rebel Queen feel more like an outline
from a history lesson than a novel.

Nevertheless
it is a fascinating slice-of-life story of an oft-overlooked period of India’s
history, and many readers will appreciate the focus on women in this
period.  Readers looking for a
fast-paced read set in an interesting place will enjoy Rebel Queen.  Those who
enjoy novels set as memoires or diaries will enjoy the narrative focus of the
story and the ways that Sita has of looking at and experiencing the world
around her.  Grab Rebel Queen and head to the beach.

Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

Razorhurst, the place, is not friendly
to children.  In a fast-paced novel
that goes out with a bang, children grow up fast or don’t grow up at all.  Some readers may find themselves
frantically checking the genre-labeling on this one, as Larbalestier doesn’t
skip over the reality of violence—the many forms of it—that made Razorhurst
what it was in the interwar era of Sydney. 

Surry
Hills is more than a setting in this novel.  It sets the tone for everything that happens, and everything
happens quickly.  Kelpie, a street
urchin, and Dymphna Campbell meet almost by chance yet are drawn to each other
for a reason neither feels comfortable speaking about.  Dymphna is a prostitute, Gloriana
Nelson’s “best girl,” who has escaped a horrific past.  Kelpie doesn’t know who her parents
are, only that living on the street is better than going to an orphanage. 

Surry
Hills, apart from being a well-known part of Sydney ruled by crime
bosses—particularly Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson—is a wonderful metaphor
for the up-and-down nature of life in this era, when the rich lived in their
big houses, far away from the poor and the injured war veterans forced to
scratch a living where even the houses themselves are rotting apart and
subsiding into the earth. 
Razorhurst is both a place to lose yourself, and a place where
people—everything they know about themselves—can get lost and forgotten.  Larbalestier emphasizes this by giving
the reader tiny bits of history—flashbacks—that weave together with the story
just like the lives of Kelpie and Dymphna do, getting tighter and tighter until
the story’s end.  She allows the
reader to solve the mysteries of the novel at their own pace, without slowing
down the flow of the story.

Razorhurst pulls no
punches and readers should expect plenty of authentic dialog and realistic
situations that may not be palatable for younger teen readers.  Larbalestier is an author who doesn’t
pander to or patronize her young adult readers, providing two strong but
different main characters with which to identify, who provide different levels
of entry into the same story. 
Readers who enjoy historical novels with plenty of research will love
the way Razorhurst combines a strong
sense of place with period dialog, dress, and urban life.  Readers looking for something out of
the ordinary run of American settings will enjoy getting to know Sydney and the
novel’s overall Australian feel. 

Citadel, by Kate Mosse

Citadel is the final volume in Kate
Mosse’s Languedoc series of novels, which all take place in Southern France,
albeit at different points in history. 
Citadel begins as France has
just lost to Germany in 1942 and has begun to be occupied by the Nazis.  Although Carcassonne and the Pyrenees
region is in the non-occupied zone at first, the city and surrounding countryside
are feeling the strain of rationing, as well as the force of French laws coming
down which support the Nazis.

 Mosse
always chooses captivating topics around which to build her historical fiction,
and Citadel does not disappoint in
that regard.  She has built her
narrative around a young woman who is relatively ignorant of the degree to
which the French government in Paris has capitulated to Nazi forces, and what
it has cost the resistance movement in Carcassonne to push against that.  As Sandrine moves through the story and
becomes involved in the movement, the reader learns with her, but also has the
sobering perspective of knowing what detention means, for example, for Jewish
citizens in France, and what the creeping influence of Nazi occupation
eventually leads to for all of Europe.

 Mosse
is at her strongest when writing dialog. 
Her characters interact fluidly with one another and much of the tension
is built when characters speak to each other.  Citadel is a long
novel, though—saga certainly would be an apt description—and Mosse’s narrative
style can be choppy and long-winded by turns; for readers used to faster-paced
stories, this narrative style can have the effect of pulling readers out of the
story.  There is also the secondary
narrative in Citadel that Mosse is
known for.  She has done an
astounding amount of research on this particular region of France, as well as
early Christian history, and she again has injected that into this novel.  Besides recurring characters from her
other Languedoc novels, Mosse plays with the idea of an early Christian set of
texts which can effect events and people. 
While adding interest to the story, it also significantly increases the
page count.

 For
readers who love well-researched historical novels with a fair bit of romance, Citadel is for them.  Readers looking for a World War II
narrative based in Europe will also find much to enjoy in this novel, as will
those who like loosely connected novel series. 

 It
is worth mentioning that there is a small scene of sexual violence, as part of
a torture scene, towards the end of the novel that some readers may want to be
aware of.

The Tutor, by Andrea Chapin

            Reading The Tutor I had the feeling the author was trying to pack as many Early Modern “things” into one Elizabethan novel as she possibly could.  At first I was a bit tickled by the references to plays, superstitions, and language use.  After a while, though, it became tiresome.  Let’s step back a bit.  The Tutor is Chapin’s first novel.  Though it’s a well-plotted story, it’s bound to have its missteps.  Truly, I didn’t mind the references themselves, or the use of period language that might be unknown to some readers in the dialog.  It was the author’s attempts to explain everything that bothered me.  From a purely literary standpoint, if the meaning of a turn of phrase or historical reference can’t be gleaned from its context, it probably doesn’t belong there.  For comparison, there are plenty of great descriptions of clothing that are full of words, the meaning of which the majority of readers won’t be familiar with, however the author never stops to explain just what a partlet is.  As a first-time novelist, the author is too obvious in her desire for readers to see just how clever she is in mixing in so much poetry and Early Modern vocabulary. 

            That said, The Tutor is a novel that grips the reader until the end.  Deciding to write about a set period of time—the time between 1592 and 1594 when the London playhouses were closed and little is known about Shakespeare’s life—provides the author and reader with a goal and deadline.  For readers who know a little about Shakespeare’s life, it also provides a bit of a guilty pleasure thrill: we know how the story must end, based on what we know about the bard himself, however we have a little bit of space to fantasize.  No doubt this was what drew Chapin to the story. 

            Katharine, the protagonist and point of view character, is without doubt a strongly developed character, as are all of her family and acquaintance.  Notable personages in The Tutor are sketched perhaps differently than they would be in other novels, however that is more related to Katharine’s relationship to them.  She is a charitable person, willing to see the good in all, even the women/witches brought to the estate for a night on their way to the assizes: when Katharine first hears that they must allow the women to be imprisoned there she gives way to the superstitions of the time, however upon learning more about them and seeing them she decides they are more likely victims of circumstance and people to be pitied.  Katharine is a frustrating character, though, because the reader generally wants good things to happen to her, but she makes choices that are not necessarily good for her emotional well-being.  She is a strong person, but like anyone, makes bad choices.  It is gratifying that the author brings the reader into Katharine’s headspace often enough to understand her motivations, though there are times I wished for more plot and less thought.  But I imagine that readers who enjoy historicals and romances will be quite engrossed in Katharine’s story. 

            Depending upon what you know about Shakespeare and his work, you will either like or dislike Chapin’s sketch of him.  By placing the story deeply in Catholic country, among the manors of the rich and educated, Chapin shows her allegiance to the nobility, making Shakespeare out as an upstart, a bit of a fraud, and one who has not quite “earned” what he has.  The parallels between Chapin’s sketch of his character and the nobles’ opinions of Queen Elizabeth are just a little too uncanny for anyone to truly be enthralled by him, whatever his genius. 

The themes the author builds—the nature of desire, belief and superstition, love and marriage—are well-placed in this historical setting.  I’d wish that Chapin had spent more time on these themes and less on Katharine’s headspace, but again, it is also a matter of taste.  Chapin has certainly put effort into shining light on the real situation of women in the period, rather than relying on the oft-used trope of women as wives and homemakers and nothing else.  Katharine is an individual who is treated as such by her family.  But though it’s gratifying to see a woman be given credit for intelligence and ability, the degree to which Chapin lets her protagonist be used by Shakespeare may be a letdown for some readers.

            Readers who enjoy historical novels featuring famous figures will enjoy The Tutor for its homage to Shakespeare and Elizabethan England.  Those who want a little more cerebral romance will also find it gratifying.  As a student of the Early Modern period, I can’t guarantee that all Early Modernists will enjoy this novel, for reasons outlined above, but it will certainly be an engrossing read whatever your overall impressions of the writing.  This novel is sure to warm up any reader’s cold midwinter.

Review of Sepulchre, by Kate Mosse

Sepulchre takes a cue from Mosse’s previous novel, Labyrinth, in being not only based in the same region of Southern France, but operating on the same double-timeline plot progression featuring a secret history that the contemporary main character must uncover.  Mosse’s writing style is that of a formula writer, one quite familiar with her subject matter, who treats the reader as a comfortable co-conspirator in a guilty-pleasure read that is full enough of facts to make it feel more worthwhile than it is. 

She treats the reader to plenty of descriptions of everything—scenery, people, significant objects, feelings—and throws in fun bits of romance and intrigue.  As Labyrinth had its references to a hidden history of the holy grail and those who seek to use its power to their advantage, Sepulchre is based on a mystery Tarot deck and the shady character who is trying to recover it.  Perhaps as a literal representation of the Tarot theme, characters meet–coincidence or fate?–and form intensely close relationships very quickly with few questions asked.  For example, the contemporary main character Meredith, on her first evening in Rennes-les-Bains, meets Hal and by the next day they are hugging, hand-holding, and feeling intense attractions for each other, as though they have known each other for their entire lives.  Based on the tone of the book and its themes, it’s pretty much a done deal that the two will end up in bed together, and with an eventual happily ever after.  

Hal and Meredith’s relationship is rather reminiscent of the strangely close relationship between Alice and Will in Labyrinth, both of whom turn out to be re-incarnations of a married couple from the thirteenth century.  Mosse is perhaps taking too much advantage of the liberties of coincidence.  A plethora of interesting in-depth research aside, the plot device begins to wear thin in Sepulchre, especially because even two-thirds through the novel nothing has really happened apart from both main characters in both timelines traveling from Paris to  Rennes-les-Bains, meeting people from the region, and making discoveries of dubious importance.

The tone of Sepulchre is personified by Leonie, seventeen years old when her story begins in 1891–delicate, impressionable, dramatic, innocent, both she and the novel move forward with no real direction other than a mysterious, yet companionable, happenstance.  Mosse seems very comfortable with the writing style and subject matter she has chosen, which adds to the overall sense of peace and implacability in the novel.  It is a strength which has a tendency to gloss over the story’s meandering progress.  To be truthful, the novel could do with a good many fewer words–adjectives and adverbs in particular–and still accomplish just as much.  But readers looking for a writer fully in love with her subject matter will enjoy Mosse’s style.

Characterization, though it relies on tropes for most major characters, is at least adequately developed so that each character reads as an individual.  I would’ve enjoyed the novel far more, I think, if Mosse had spend a little more time getting to know her characters, and really finding out what their quirks and best-held wishes were, rather than painting flat images of innocence, elegance, evil, etc.  Mosse’s best-developed character is actually the one who makes the shortest appearance: Marguerite, the mother of Leonie.  Marguerite has lived through the Paris Commune, the death of her husband, and raised two children on her own using her wits and physical charms to garner patrons who would support her financially.  She has an understanding of the world that is beyond most of the characters–the ways in which sex and violence have and will always be intertwined–and refuses to allow her children to see the true horror of it.  The novel, in fact, features a range of female characters, from the strong and worldly Marguerite, to the headstrong and fiercely loyal Leonie, to the elegant but withdrawing Isolde. The novel is satisfying because the reader gets to see all of these stories play out, but disappointing in that even in moments of the greatest tension there is little feeling of uncertainty and suspense—rather a constant sense of inevitability and formulaic plotting.

            Then again, readers who are looking for a romance with a dash of mystery will enjoy this novel, especially if they like historicals.  Mosse has clearly put a lot of effort into achieving a certain effect, and it certainly doesn’t go to waste.  Those interested in novels like The Da Vinci Code and others based on lost and conspiracy-theory histories will also enjoy Sepulchre as long as they’re not looking for too much action and suspense, as will those who like European settings and plenty of French idioms.  The novel also features a contemporary plot driven by the biography of Claude DeBussy, which will appeal to readers who like art and artist novels.

Divide My Love in Half: The Dangerous Pull of the Dual Narrative Novel

Authors use various narrative devices in their work to achieve particular ends.  Sometimes they are straightforward plot advancers, sometimes they have something to say about life, and sometimes they even have something to say about narrative itself.  I believe that with Kate Mosse’s two novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, she uses the dual narrative device to do a little of all three.  But where does the speaking end and the action begin?

In an interview on the blog Women’s Fiction Writers, Kristina McMorris explains that readers enjoy dual-narrative or dual timeline novels because, “Through interwoven timelines, we’re able to witness how the act of one person even decades ago can unknowingly alter the course of another person’s life down the road”.  There is a certain type of suspense that comes from a novel written in two entirely different time periods, but which intertwine throughout the novel.  It’s a feeling of inexorability, a sense that we almost already know what will happen because of what is happening right now, and yet a palpable thrilling sense of mystery multiplied twofold, due to the dual plots, the conflict that each main character is experiencing.  

Readers also get the best of both worlds, in a way, as the earlier narrative is often a historical one, full of the wonderful depictions of another time and place; it’s agreed in historical fiction circles that the biggest pitfall to writing a historical novel is not doing the right research, because just the right detail to perfect the story might be only a book or document away.   Authors of historical novels sometimes perform years of research just to write one novel, and they carefully insert historical facts into the narrative to bring the historical setting to life.   But readers don’t just get the historical narrative; a contemporary narrative complements the historical —two stories for the price of one!

But.

What makes a good historical fiction writer?  What makes a good contemporary fiction writer?  Can the two meet?  In many regards, writing fiction that takes place in the here and now is just like writing historical fiction.  If you write a novel that is supposed to be set in Chicago, but the only aspects of the narrative meant to elicit a sense of place are stereotypes and vague references to how windy it always is, readers are going to be turned off by your story.  Writing contemporary fiction takes a certain amount of introspection, and sometimes even research, to elicit the feel of a place—what it looks like, who lives there, the weather, the sense of place and history.  One would think that for historical fiction writers, adding a second timeline would be relatively simple—same methods, less guessing because you can actually go there right now.

But on a recent foray into historical dual narrative novel-reading, I’ve found that quite the opposite can come true all to easily.  In Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre, the historical settings and narratives are quite wonderfully researched and brought to life.  The characters who lived in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Carcassonne in the former, and nineteenth-century Paris in the latter, are quite three-dimensional and alive and believable.  The characters who appear in the contemporary timelines in both, however, are less-so.  The novels feature a female protagonist each in the historical and contemporary narratives.  The protagonists from the twenty-first century in each novel are practically interchangeable, and the villain characters and the love interests don’t go much further.  

Labyrinth’s Alice and Sepulchre’s Meredith, even though one is English and the other from the United States, are twenty-something single intellectuals, strong-willed and a little afraid of the world, each looking to uncover some aspect of the past.  Though each has a slightly different motivation, each answers the pull with nearly the same lead-footed hypnosis.  They have to perform these tasks, of course, because otherwise the novel wouldn’t continue—the reader wouldn’t get the historical narrative because there would be no intrinsic reason for it.  I was amazed, at first, when I realized how stark the difference was between the development of characters across the two timelines in each novel, but in a way it makes sense.  

Historical novel-writing, as mentioned above, takes a large amount of effort and research just to get the place right, not to mention the characters.  Authors pore over every detail, making minute cuts here and there, until they practically come to inhabit the lives and worlds of their historical characters.  In her 2006 article “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Suzanne Keen describes authors almost as extreme empathizers.  She reports on a study in which fiction writers experience a feeling of their characters having independent agency, and a sense of “eavesdropping…, bargaining with them, and feeling for them” (221).  As Keen puts it, “Though clearly novelists still do exercise their authority by choosing the words that end up on the page, they may experience the creative process as akin to involuntarily empathizing with a person out there, separate from themselves” (221) and further reports that fiction writers as a group scored higher than the general population empathy. 

Putting these two facts together—that historical fiction writers pour themselves into their research and craft, and that fiction writers generally score extremely high on the empathy scale—it’s not surprising that a historical narrative would take precedence, even unwittingly, in a dual narrative novel.  Here McMorris also agrees, stating that it is important “to make sure the stakes are as equal as possible in both story lines.  Otherwise you risk tempting the reader to skim the chapters that in comparison have a lower level of tension.”  A dual narrative novel first inspired by a past event or person is the initial focus of tension and conflict—the author has to work to create the same level of interest and conflict in the contemporary narrative.  For an author already drawn to historical writing and research, it would be understandably difficult to muster the same level of empathy and interest for another, less inspiring time period.  

This is not to say that authors shouldn’t attempt such narrative devices, only that they should be aware of the pitfalls.  Indeed historical fiction is coming to have a broader role in understanding history itself than previously given credit for, and a historical narrative that can converse with the contemporary can be a great addition to a greater narrative about history and what we know about ourselves.  Indeed Margaret Atwood was quoted by Forrest G. Robinson in his 2004 article “We Should Talk: Western History and Wester Literature in Dialogue,” saying, “How do we know we know what we think we know?  And if we find that, after all, we don’t know what it is that we once though we knew, how do we know we are who we think we are, or thought we were yesterday, or thought we were—for instance—a hundred years ago?,” an argument for literature’s place in our historical understanding of ourselves, rather than relying on only an absolutist, modernist version of history.  Alice’s compulsion to uncover the history of twelfth-century Carcassonne, in Labyrinth, stems ultimately from it being her own personal family history, and she comes to an understanding of it through the stories she dreams and hears from other characters.  The Grail itself is meant to provide long life for a person to go forth, to bear witness and tell a truth.  A novel may only reveal one small part of a greater story of a place and time, but after all that is only what history books can do, and they can only tell it from one point of view.  For what is history, if not the story of us, and if histories forget the smaller narratives, what truths do they tell?  

And so we read on.