Life as opera: the intrigues and passions of a star soprano in 19th-century Paris.
She was the last surviving member of a Minnesota farm family swept away by fever; "Lilliet Berne" is a name she borrowed off a gravestone by the East River on her way to board a ship to Europe in search of her mother's people. That mission is eventually abandoned as her original identity is buried under a succession of new incarnations and schemes for survival. She becomes a circus equestrienne, a high-level courtesan, a maid to the empress of France, a spy, and, ultimately, a "Falcon," the rarest breed of soprano—but double dealings, false steps, and bad bargains mark the way. When she is at the pinnacle of her fame, a writer brings her a book he plans to transform into an opera, hoping she will create the central role in its premiere. Reading it, she realizes with horror that the main character is her and that whoever has written it knows all her secrets. To find out who that is, she unfurls the whole of her complicated history and its characters, among them a tenor who's obsessed with her, a comtesse who uses her, her one real friend, and her only love. The story goes through the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the Third Republic, with cameos by Verdi, Bizet, P.T. Barnum, George Sand, and others. If the plot of Chee's (Edinburgh, 2002) second novel is overly elaborate, the voice he has created for his female protagonist never falters. Always holding a few cards close to her chest, Lilliet Berne commands the power of "the ridiculous and beloved thief that is opera—the singer who sneaks into the palace of your heart and somehow enters singing aloud the secret hope or love or grief you hoped would always stay secret, disguised as melodrama; and you are so happy you have lived to see it done."
Richly researched, ornately plotted, this story demands, and repays, close attention.
Fifteen-year-old Naomi flees slavery in Alabama for a better life of freedom up North—only to run into trouble along the way.
Naomi has spent her childhood on Massa Hilden's plantation watching her mother systematically raped under his orders because Hilden wants to breed more slaves to sell. But when Massa Hilden focuses on Naomi and her sister Hazel as the new targets for his sexual violence, the girls' mother kills Massa Hilden and pays for it with her own life. Although it's Hazel who has long held dreams of freedom, it's only Naomi who then manages to escape the plantation. She makes it as far as Coyners, Georgia, before falling sick and being rescued by Cynthia, the madam of the local brothel, who's looking for a new slave she doesn't actually have to lay out any money to purchase. Naomi hides out there, falls in love, and finds herself pregnant—until her fugitive-slave past is discovered and she's forced on the run again. But Naomi doesn't get far; her baby decides to arrive, and Naomi is quickly hunted down and shot by slave catchers moments after giving birth. From the afterlife, Naomi watches her daughter, named Josephine, grow up—longing for the lost chance to be a mother to her daughter. The novel, narrated by Naomi from this moment of her death, crisscrosses through time, cutting between past and present. This structure, which serves to distract from rather than add to the story, is the only weakness of the book. But this is a brave story, necessary and poignant; it is a story that demands to be heard. This is the violent, terrifying world of the antebellum South, where African-American women were prey and their babies sold like livestock. This is the story of mothers and daughters—of violence, absence, love, and legacies. Deón’s vivid imagery, deft characterization, and spellbinding language carry the reader through this suspenseful tale.
A haunting, visceral novel that heralds the birth of a powerful new voice in American fiction.
Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.
Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.
A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).
Prolific British author Dunmore, who has published poetry, children’s literature, and a range of adult fiction (The Lie, 2014, etc.), shifts gears yet again with this Cold War–era spy drama.
Drama as opposed to mystery because there is no question about who’s passing secrets. Readers know early on that Giles Holloway and his spymaster, Julian Clowde, are moles in the British Admiralty, where Julian holds a high position. This is 1960, the defection of actual spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean is public knowledge, and Giles senses he’s being watched. One night after photographing a file for Julian in his secret attic office, Giles falls down his stairs in a fluke accident that leaves him seriously injured. Since Julian is unavailable in Venice, Giles calls co-worker Simon Callington from his hospital bed to ask a favor: get the file and return it to Julian’s desk. But Simon is clearly no spy, merely a middling civil servant without ambition. After an unhappy childhood being bullied by his brothers, all Simon cares about is the haven of normalcy he has created with his children and wife, Lily, a Jew who escaped Germany in 1937 and remains fearfully conscious of her outsider status in England. But out of lingering affection and guilt—before meeting Lily, while still a student at Cambridge, he broke off an intense love affair with Giles—Simon agrees to retrieve the file against his better judgment. When he sees the designation “Top Secret,” Simon realizes that Giles lacked authorization to read the file, let alone bring it home, and was probably spying. Afraid that returning it will place Simon himself under suspicion, he brings the file home, where Lily finds it and does whatever she considers necessary to save her family.
This subtle, off-kilter foray into John le Carré territory—a chilling, thoughtful, deeply romantic drama about the collateral damage suffered by those on the periphery of world events—displays Dunmore's gifts as one of today’s most elegant and versatile storytellers.
In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.
Johanna Leonberger remembers almost nothing of her first 6 years, when she lived with her parents. Instead, her memory extends only as far as her Kiowa family—she speaks no English and by white standards is uncivilized. Tired of being harassed by the cavalry, the Kiowa sell her back to an Indian agent for "fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware." Enter Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 70-year-old veteran of two wars and, in 1870, when the novel takes place, a professional reader—he travels through Texas giving public readings from newspapers to an audience hungry for events of the world. At first reluctant to take her the 400 miles to the town near San Antonio where her aunt and uncle live, he soon realizes his itinerant life makes him the most plausible person for the job—and he also knows it’s the right thing to do. He buys a wagon, and they start their journey, much to the reluctance and outrage of the undomesticated Johanna; but a relationship soon begins to develop between the two. Jiles makes the narrative compelling by unsentimentally constructing a bond based at least in part on a mutual need for survival, but slowly and delicately, Johanna and Kidd begin to respect as well as need one another. What cements their alliance is facing many obstacles along the way, including an unmerciful landscape; a lack of weapons; and a vicious cowboy and his companions, who want to kill Kidd and use the girl for their own foul purposes. As one might expect, Kidd and Johanna eventually develop a deep and affectionate relationship; when they arrive at the Leonbergers, the captain must make a difficult choice about whether to leave the girl there or hold onto her himself.
Lyrical and affecting, the novel succeeds in skirting clichés through its empathy and through the depth of its major characters.
Two absorbing narrative lines follow an imagined perpetrator and potential victims in the 1984 bombing that targeted Margaret Thatcher and other Conservative Party notables meeting at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England.
Lee (Who Is Mr Satoshi, 2010, etc.) uses few historical characters as his story toggles within a fictional trio: Dan, an accomplice to the bombing; the hotel’s deputy manager, nicknamed Moose; and his feisty daughter, Freya. After initiation into the Provisional Irish Republican Army at 18, Dan is shown briefly working on smaller “ops” but mainly sharing with his widowed mother a fairly normal life in Northern Ireland. His role in the bombing begins when he checks into the hotel and offers cover for an IRA explosives expert. Moose is caught up in preparations for the Conservative Party conference that will have Margaret Thatcher and Cabinet members staying at the Grand. If it goes off well, so to speak, he expects to become the general manager. The divorced father worries about Freya, 18, who is marking time before college with a job on the hotel’s front desk, finding and losing a beau, and fighting with or fretting over her dad. The fragile normalcy of these lives on both sides of the Irish Sea is nicely conveyed, with smaller points of tension adding to the reader’s anticipation of the known climax, such as Dan’s sense of a growing threat to his home and mother or Moose’s loss of managerial control when he suffers a heart attack. The bomb itself is the main slow-burning fuse of suspense, detonated late in the tale. As one character says of movies, “sometimes the before is more interesting than the after.”
Lee’s writing has a marked freshness, his pacing and dialogue are exceptional, and every scene is deftly handled. This is a real craftsman at work.
Award-winning Australian author London (The Good Parents, 2008, etc.) illuminates lives touched by polio and World War II in her third novel, set in a convalescent home in Perth.
A children's polio clinic called The Golden Age serves as the book's focus. Beside it stands the Netting Factory, operating noisily day and night. The children, brought up never to waste electricity, find the factory "breathtakingly extravagant." It seems to promise "No one will ever die here." In short, vivid chapters, London draws the reader into her characters' lives. Thirteen-year-old Frank Gold, a Jewish refugee from Hungary, discovers poetry. When asked how he knows the word "nostalgia," Frank thinks: "How could he not? Nostalgia was everywhere. It had a special voice, and special time—sunset, Sunday nights." He falls in love with another patient, Elsa, who's mourning the loss of her bike, Malvern. Meanwhile, Frank's parents, Meyer and Ida, try to adjust to a city wholly unlike their beloved Budapest. Ida, a concert pianist, has refused to play since Frank contracted polio. London's work has garnered many Australian prizes—the Prime Minister's Award for Fiction, the Patrick White Literary Award, and others—for good reason. Her writing is cleareyed, generous-hearted, never sentimental: "Meyer sat down humbly on the white cover, next to his son's wasted legs....This is why the human race goes on having children, he thought. To remind us of the bliss of being loved." The horror and unfairness of the disease exist alongside the tenderness of human connections. At its heart, the book is about people living in places they never chose: the polio clinic, for the children in wheelchairs and calipers; Australia, for Frank's cultured parents. In one of the book's most moving scenes, Ida plays the piano for a charity benefit. In front of sleepy children and townsfolk "fresh-shaven, with big, clean ears," she nonetheless strives for perfection. "This was the land in which her life would take place....This was her audience....She must do her very best."
Every character, however minor, comes to life in these pages. Like her fictional pianist, London is a virtuoso.
Prentiss’ sweeping debut follows three intertwining lives through the swirling energy, burning excitement, and crushing disappointment of New York City’s rapidly shifting art world at the dawn of the 1980s.
It’s Dec. 31, 1979, and James Bennett, a synesthetic rising star of art criticism, and his also-brilliant pregnant wife are toasting the new decade at the kind of swanky art-scene party they prefer to avoid. Also at the party: painter Raul Engales, a charismatic Argentinian expatriate who's done his best to erase his past life and is now poised, though he doesn’t know it yet, to become the darling of the art world. And: in a bar downtown later that night, Raul catches the (gorgeous) eye of 21-year-old Lucy Marie Olliason, recently transplanted from Ketchum, Idaho, in love with the city, and ready to fall in love with the artists in it. Their stories crash into each other like dominoes—the critic, the artist, and the muse—their separate futures and personal tragedies inextricably linked. The particulars of their connections, romantic and artistic, are too big and too poetic to be entirely plausible, but then, this is not a slice-of-life novel: this is a portrait of an era, an intoxicating Manhattan fairy tale. Prentiss’ characters—rich, nuanced, satisfyingly complicated—are informed not only by their emotional lives, but also by their intellectual and artistic ones; their relationships to art are as lively and essential as their relationships to each other. But while the novel is elegantly infused with an ambient sense of impending loss—this is New York on the cusp of drastic gentrification—it miraculously manages to dodge the trap of easy nostalgia, thanks in large part to Prentiss’ wry humor.
As affecting as it is absorbing. A thrilling debut.
Renowned author Proulx (Bird Cloud: A Memoir, 2011, etc.) moves into Michener territory with a vast multigenerational story of the North Woods.
“How big is this forest?” So asks the overawed immigrant Charles Duquet, who, with his companion René Sel, has nowhere in the world to go but up—and up by way of New France, a land of dark forests and clannish Mi’kmaq people, most of whom would just as soon be left alone. The answer: the forest is endless. Finding work as indentured “barkskins,” or woodcutters, they wrestle a livelihood from the trees while divining that the woods might provide real wealth, kidnapping a missionary priest to teach Duquet how to read so that he might keep the books for a dreamed-of fortune. René founds a powerful local dynasty: “Here on the Gatineau,” Proulx writes, “the Sels were a different kind of people, neither Mi’kmaq nor the other, and certainly not both.” She drives quickly to two large themes, both centering on violence, the one the kind that people do to the land and to each other, the other the kind that the land itself can exact. In the end, over hundreds of pages, the land eventually loses, as Sels and their neighbors in the St. Lawrence River country fell the forests, sending timber to every continent; if they do not die in the bargain, her characters contribute to dynasties of their own: “He wanted next to find Josime on Manitoulin Island and count up more nieces and nephews. He had come out of the year of trial by fire wanting children.” As they move into our own time, though, those children come to see that other wealth can be drawn from the forest without the need for bloodshed or spilled sap. Part ecological fable à la Ursula K. Le Guin, part foundational saga along the lines of Brian Moore’s Black Robe and, yes, James Michener’s Centennial, Proulx’s story builds in depth and complication without becoming unduly tangled and is always told with the most beautiful language.
Another tremendous book from Proulx, sure to find and enthrall many readers.
An English nurse confronts Irish history and entrenched prejudices—some of them hers—in this stinging latest from Donoghue (Frog Music, 2014, etc.).
Lib Wright has survived the Crimean War and a failed marriage by the time she’s summoned to central Ireland to watch over 11-year-old Anna O’Donnell, whose parents claim she has eaten no food in four months. The girl’s physician, Dr. McBrearty, and a committee of local bigwigs have hired Lib and a nun to provide round-the-clock surveillance. Lib quickly realizes that Dr. McBrearty, at least, is weirdly anxious to prove the girl’s fast is no hoax, even if he deplores loose talk of a miracle. An advocate of the scientific nursing principles preached by Florence Nightingale, Lib has nothing but contempt for such an absurd idea. Yet she is charmed by Anna, as whip-smart as she is pious, and alarmed when the girl’s surprisingly robust health begins to falter shortly after the nurses’ watch begins. Clearly someone has been feeding Anna until now, but it’s also clear she believes she has eaten nothing. Lib’s solution of this riddle says nothing good about provincial Irish society in the mid-19th century, seen through her eyes as sexist, abusive, and riddled with ridiculous superstitions. Irish Times correspondent William Byrne counters with a scathing analysis of the recent potato famine, angrily instructing this blinkered Englishwoman in her nation’s culpability for mass starvation as well as the centuries of repression that have made the Irish a defensive, backward people. Nonetheless, nothing can excuse the wall of denial Lib slams into as she desperately tries to get Anna’s parents and the committee even to acknowledge how sick the child is. The story’s resolution seems like pure wish fulfillment, but vivid, tender scenes between Lib and Anna, coupled with the pleasing romance that springs up between feisty Lib and the appreciative Byrne, will incline most readers to grant Donoghue her tentative happy ending.
Her contemporary thriller Room (2010) made the author an international bestseller, but this gripping tale offers a welcome reminder that her historical fiction is equally fine.
Like an intense, beautiful, and deeply moving piece of music, Tremain’s captivating historical novel hits all the right notes.
When we first meet Gustav, the protagonist of Tremain’s (Merivel: A Man of His Time, 2012, etc.) exquisite novel, he is 5 years old and living with his none-too-happy widowed mother, Emilie, in their extremely modest apartment in the small Swiss town of Matzlingen. The year is 1947, and the postwar mood is grim, yet Gustav finds patches of color, flavor, and beauty in the drab, gray world he and Emilie inhabit: the dark purple of a nearly new lipstick he discovers in the gratings of the church he and his mother clean to supplement her income from working in a cheese cooperative; the taste of Emilie’s knodel; the bloom of the cherry tree in their building’s courtyard. Gustav’s mother has offered him one chief lesson: he must “master himself,” as, she says, his late father did before him. “You have to be like Switzerland,” she tells him. “You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.” Into this relatively cheerless world walks Anton, a talented yet moody Jewish musical prodigy who becomes Gustav’s most treasured friend. In concert with Gustav’s story, Tremain, who won the 2008 Orange Prize for The Road Home, also tells that of his father, Erich, a strong, handsome assistant police chief who followed his conscience and his heart. Eventually, Gustav’s lifelong friendship with Anton helps him to unlearn the stern lessons of his mother and unlock the secrets and yearnings of his own heart.
Spanning the decades from 1937 to 2002, Tremain’s novel is less sprawling than it is deeply intimate, a soul-stirring song about friendship, conscience, and love.
What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?
For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.
Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.