A debut novel details a betrayal in apartheid South Africa.
Anderson (Vanishing Ground: Poems, 2000) tells the tale of Adrian Erasmus, a man raised by his widower father, a drunken, racist Boer who eventually blows his brains out in front of his son due to an impossible debt. Adrian is shooting a video starring professor Digby Bamford. Although his reputation has faded, Bamford caused a sensation in the 1960s when he found a fossilized skull called Wonderboy, suggesting humans originated in South Africa. Also at the Wonderboy site are Bamford’s girlfriend, Vicky, once Adrian’s lover, and Adrian’s co-worker, a black South African known as Bucs. Complications develop as the foursome camps in the remote area. Adrian wants to rekindle his affair with Vicky, but she has her eye on Bucs; Adrian fantasizes about killing both men. When the booze-swilling Bamford proposes a porn shoot starring Vicky, Bucs, and Adrian, Bucs leaves and Adrian blows up the crew’s vehicle, creating a huge fire. Later Adrian finds Bamford dying from a gunshot wound that he claims is self-inflicted, but Adrian discovers that Vicky shot him. After witnessing South African soldiers tearing down a black family’s hut, he runs into a racist soldier who tells Adrian he and his comrades have captured and badly beaten the innocent Bucs while hunting for “terros”—terrorists. After Adrian lies, claiming Bucs killed Bamford and set the fire, the black man faces execution. This is a tautly written, finely crafted novel that plumbs the depths of racism, not only as it occurred in South Africa under apartheid, but by extension as it continues in much of the world today. Anderson has a golden ear for realistic dialogue, and his descriptive powers are strong (Bamford looks “like some flabby failure in a Mr. Universe contest”). Readers should not only see the characters, places, and situations the author describes, but smell, hear, and sometimes even feel them as well. Beyond painting a bleak portrait of the dissolute, decadent, and cruel nature of apartheid South Africa, “this bloody fascist country,” the book builds to a moral climax when Adrian has the chance to free his colleague. The only characters who come across as decent are the blacks, and they are relentlessly ground down by the whites.
An impressive tale, written in a sure-handed style, that vividly exposes the heavy personal and cultural costs of racism.
A biography of Jane Hall, a writer for magazines and movies, traces the complicated, warring pressures of talent and the feminine mystique.
Cutler (The Laughing Desert, 2012, etc.), a historian, tells the story of her mother’s life. Born in an Arizona mining town in 1915, Hall had published poems, short stories, articles, and more by the time she was 15. After her parents died, Hall and her brother moved east in 1930 to live with her aunt and uncle, part of Manhattan’s privileged elite. In 1933, Hearst’s New York American called her “one of the season’s most ‘prominent debutantes.’ ” Hall began selling stories and moved to Hollywood in 1937, where her colleagues included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, and Anita Loos. Hall’s hard work and gift for dialogue earned her a good reputation; she worked on a half-dozen films, such as These Glamour Girls (1939). Cosmopolitan published that movie as a novel and featured her on the cover, writing that Hall “would rather be considered a glamour girl than a successful writer,” adding “She is both”—but not for much longer. In 1940, she married Robert Frye Cutler, a theatrical producer. They had Robin in 1944. Hall soon lost momentum as a writer; her last penciled diary comment, dated 1951, reads: “I haven’t written anything for years….I feel peaceful, quite resigned, and also, much of the time, quite dead.” Her marriage faltered, especially after her husband became an invalid, but she found some happiness in a warm, supportive friendship with a married man. She died in 1987. In this well-researched account, with full scholarly apparatus, the author thoughtfully examines the allure and trap of glamour. In this, Hall’s story mirrors those of many female professionals even today, who face immense pressures to maintain a certain look. Hall’s brushes with Hollywood and literary celebrities make great reading. Fitzgerald gave her an inscribed copy of Tender Is the Night (“the book may have been his warning to Jane about the consequences of marrying the wrong person, and the seductive power of wealth, alcohol, and a world of superficiality and showiness”). This portrait of a more literary mass-market America offers much food for reflection on modern culture.
A valuable, absorbing contribution to the history of women, golden-age Hollywood, and America’s magazine culture of the 1930s and ’40s.
A novel that explores the complex relationships among classical composers Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann and the latter’s pianist/composer wife, Clara.
When Schumann, then a young law student, first meets Clara Josephine Wieck, she’s a 9-year-old child. She’s already gaining a reputation as a pianist, though, and when he sees her play, he comes to the realization that he must devote his own life to music. He convinces Clara’s father, Friedrich, to take him on as a piano student, and he moves in with the family. Gradually, the bond between teenage Clara and Robert becomes romantic, but Friedrich furiously opposes their union and forbids them to see each other. He has reason to believe Robert is dishonorable, and he also thinks that the musician is incapable of adequately supporting his daughter financially. However, after time apart, Clara and Robert commit to each other and plan to marry against her father’s wishes. Friedrich does everything in his power to stop them, including taking them to court. After composer Felix Mendelssohn testifies on Robert’s behalf, Clara and Robert wed, but their relationship remains fraught with challenges. Robert wins fame for his original compositions but is unable to make much of an income, and he’s emasculated by Clara’s superior earning power. Clara, too, becomes frustrated that she’s sacrificed her career for his and frets about his deteriorating mental health. When Robert is committed to an asylum after a failed suicide attempt, his friend Brahms serves as a messenger between him and Clara—and falls deeply in love with her. Author Desai (Dancing about Architecture, 2013, etc.) has produced a magisterial work, which is clearly the result of astonishingly thorough research. Although the story revolves tightly around the three main figures, there are also fascinating cameos by such musical luminaries as Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Fréderic Chopin, and he memorably depicts the ego-driven rivalries between them. Each has a unique personality, and the author does a lovely job of dramatizing their quirks. Still, the character of Clara steals the show, and she emerges from the shadow of her husband’s much grander reputation as a musical genius in her own right.
A debut historical novel charts the buildup to and aftermath of the worst mining disaster in American history.
Set against the rural backdrop of Appalachia, this story opens in the midst of unthinkable chaos: an underground explosion in a coal mine. With an official death toll of 362, the 1907 Monongah, West Virginia, cataclysm left countless wives widowed and children without fathers. Here the blast is witnessed from ground level. Orie Morris is working in the mine when the accident occurs, while Hershel, his friend since boyhood, is on the surface. Hershel waits desperately with Orie’s wife, Bessie, as rescuers carry the bodies out, including Orie’s. The story skips back to 1896 and the 8-year-old Hershel preparing for his first day of work as a trapper boy, operating a trap door that allows fresh air into the mine shaft. By age 12, he progresses to becoming a mule wrangler and cementing a firm friendship with Orie. The novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the young friends and how a community copes with loss when torn apart by tragedy. Bessie’s character is particularly well-developed, and her plight as a widow exposes prejudices against women of the era. When approaching the relief committee for money after Orie’s death, she finds the funds withheld on “moral” grounds. The fact that she has male boarders in her home proves tantamount to living in sin, and it is her duty to demonstrate otherwise. Similarly, her new boss, Mr. Humphrey, makes sexual advances toward her and then promises to ruin her reputation when she rebukes him. All the while, Hershel remains her rock, although Orie’s memory makes their relationship a complicated one. The writing here is graceful, emotionally intuitive, and thoroughly researched. Hoover expertly captures the essence of family life in the space of a sentence, here describing Orie and Bessie: “She, a tiny woman compared with her large and boisterous husband, loved to sing and loved to laugh, and he joined in the fun, never complaining if dinner was late because she was in the yard throwing a ball with the children.” Such warm tableaux are layered to create a living, breathing community whose pain is palpable and resilience, stirring. This results in fine and powerful work from a skilled historical interpreter that should appeal to American history buffs and romantics alike.
A clever, engaging, and heart-rending tale about a 1907 catastrophe in Appalachia.
It’s tempting to class this historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg as YA fiction because its heroine is 15, but, with all due respect to that genre, it’s much, much more.
Debut novelist Moody found an account written by Matilda “Tillie” Pierce—a teenager who lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when the famous Civil War battle changed the good citizens’ lives forever—and ran with it. In this novel, Tillie comes from a good, God-fearing, staunchly abolitionist family, and she, her parents, her sister, Maggie, and a butcher’s apprentice named Sam live together; her two brothers, James and William, have gone off to war. First ragtag Confederates, bent on terror and pillage, come to town; then the Union cavalry rides to the rescue, followed by the infantry, who are met by a full complement of Confederates. Then comes the full panoply of the three awful days of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), the bloodiest clash of the war. When Gettysburg first seems threatened, Tillie goes with a neighbor and her daughters to Jacob Weikert’s farm outside town,which is thought to be safer. But then Yankees commandeer the place, turning it into a field hospital. Here Tillie distinguishes herself, as she’s pressed into service as a nurse, even assisting with amputations. However, Weikert’s farm has been effectively destroyed by Union soldiers, and he doesn’t take it kindly. There’s as much turmoil within Tillie as without; specifically, she wonders how the God she’s been taught to worship could allow this carnage. Moody knows the value of detail and pacing and knows how to set a scene and build drama, as when Weikert is challenged to give up a pump handle that he hid out of spite or when his daughter returns home to find her furniture out in the street as part of a barricade. Details such as military maneuvers, weapons, and medical treatments appear to be historically accurate, as do the language, attitudes, and mores of townspeople in 19th-century America. Although this novel will appeal to adults as well, it’s sure to grab teenagers’ imaginations and teach them not just facts, but greater truths.
A remarkable first effort, recommended without reservation.
An ambitious historical novel, set in the Rocky Mountains circa 1844, delivers a diverse cast of characters: English nobility, Native Americans, a group of orphans, and mountain men.
Veteran author Neighbor (110 In the Shade, 2016, etc.) has produced a sprawling, one-volume trilogy. In the first book, A Gathering of Orphans, readers meet old mountain man Ray Dobbs, who has signed on as a guide for the imperious Lord Edwin of Drumcliffe, who fancies a spot of hunting in the Rocky Mountains. Ray and the British lord’s expedition, up from Mexico, will meet in a large basin called the Bayou Salado, a province of the Ute nation (now located in South Park, Colorado). On the way from St. Louis to the Rockies, Ray inadvertently picks up four orphans: Moses, an autistic idiot savant; Little Weasel, a white boy raised as a Cheyenne, and his little half sister, Bluebird; and Dusty, an abused young teen. Lord Edwin’s Hunt starts with the letters home of the lord’s teenage son, Percival, a sensitive boy (Papa intends to make a man of him). Readers are also introduced to the Utes, a friendly tribe whose patience is sorely tried in the face of Lord Edwin’s wholesale slaughter. In the last book, appropriately titled Resolution, Lord Edwin’s grand enterprise falls victim to its own fatuity. But Percival does become a man, and Yankees and Brits see each other through new eyes. There is scarcely a misstep in this work, right from the fast-paced opening chapter. The dynamic characters are fully developed—although a few of the Brits are a tad cartoonish—and readers should be drawn to them. Especially touching is the family that gets cobbled together, comprising the four orphans, “Uncle Ray,” and the mountain man’s Native American partner, Crowbait. The writing is strong, and almost every detail resonates. For example, Lord Edwin heads to the Bayou Salado because of its salt marsh (“Animals come from miles around to get at it,” Ray explains at one point. “Such places are rare in the high country. When it comes to salt, animals seem to forget who’s the hunter and who’s the prey”). A lot of homework went into the making of this absorbing tale.
An engrossing and moving adventure about a British hunting expedition in the American West.
This lean Civil War sequel packs in more history and raw emotion than a 600-page epic.
Novelist Smith (Home Again, 2014) continues the story of Zach Harkin, a Union sharpshooter who was traumatized when he killed Confederate sharpshooter Jack Kavandish. This left Zach unfit for service; he was mustered out but resolved to find Jack’s widow and return his journal to her, along with her picture that Jack carried. An older Zach tells the story to Chris Martin, an enterprising young reporter from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World who shows up in Zach’s Knoxville, Tennessee, gun shop in 1908. In the fall of 1863, Zach slipped away from home to pursue his quest, do or die. Confederate sorties (Tennessee was a border state) were one danger, but Union soldiers, who assume he’s a deserter, could be just as bad. After more than one close scrape, he wound up in Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison in Georgia. We meet its notorious commandant, Henri Wirz, who was later hanged for war crimes. Zach-as-father-figure becomes a recurring motif: first, at Andersonville, he became the protector of young Beau Andrews, a bugle boy from Michigan; later, he became a real father to Kavandish’s son, Tom. With Wirz’s unwitting help, he did escape Andersonville. Then he was in the Deep South, which was more and more a lawless place, as he worked to find Jack’s farm; Gen. Sherman’s forces were coming through, and the “Home Guards,” as portrayed here, were little more than plunderers and rapists. Smith writes wonderfully and realistically, and one can hear the pacing and menace: “[Zach] could see the men’s eyes were wild, almost glazed over from drink. They sat heavy on their saddles, their heads not moving in unison with the horses’ movements. Zach braced for the worst.” Smith also knows as much about the guns of the era as a professional gunsmith and restorer. Readers will find themselves wincing and full of outrage at several turns of the plot; readers will hope—even assume—that the most sympathetic characters, whom they’ve come to love, will somehow manage to survive, but Smith often dashes such hope. One subplot, involving Martin standing up to the dictatorial Pulitzer, is either a bonus or a distraction, depending on the reader’s taste.
Smith knows the Civil War in his bones, and his novel will leave readers emotionally drained but grateful.
Tragedy and powerful but fraying limitations on women roil an Indian family in this intense historical coming-of-age novel.
In 1957, the expectations for Indian women are pretty cut-and-dried: be a good housewife. Unfortunately, in the family of Achan Krishnan, a tax collector recently reassigned to the chilly Himalayan province of Assam as a punishment for not taking bribes, such certitudes no longer satisfy. His beautiful wife, Devi, longs for more erotic passion than the stolid Achan can muster; her longings inflamed by racy romance novels, she casts her gaze at a handsome British plantation manager who dances with her at parties while Achan fumes. As if to overcompensate for her improprieties, Devi strictly polices her two daughters: Anu, a dutiful teenager, and Kavita, an unruly, 9-year-old scamp. The family tensions ratchet up when Kavita’s little brother, Arun, the apple of his parents’ eye simply because he’s a son, gets eaten by a tiger during an outing to a park. The grief-stricken Devi shaves her head and goes silent, then rebounds into even more scandalous conduct with the Brit. As the girls head into adulthood and feel the liberating tremors of the 1960s, she imposes a straightjacketing virginity-protection regime on them—no contact with boys allowed—while plotting arranged marriages to dreary older men. But a violent rupture looms as Anu conceives a forbidden love with a boy not of her caste. Warriar’s (The Enemy Within, 2005, etc.) novel, told mainly through Kavita’s voice, steeps readers in Indian culture, reveling in vivid descriptions of foods, landscapes, colorful fashions, and convoluted mores. It’s also a subtle, gripping study of patriarchy as it blights women’s lives while poisoning their relationships with one another. Kavita grows up in a world that prizes her virginity yet subjects her to constant molestation attempts by men. Meanwhile, Devi—suffocating in a loveless marriage and a generally unfulfilled life and acting out in brazen ways—is determined to impose the same hell on her daughters; indeed, she comes to see them as the main stumbling blocks to her happiness. But although Devi’s an almost monstrous character, the author still manages to portray her sympathetically. Warriar’s richly textured novel portrays this unraveling family with real emotional depth, showing how social pressures turn parents and children against one another.