The end comes for Thomas Cromwell—and for the brilliant trilogy about his life that began with Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012).
“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away”: With this perfect sentence, Mantel plunges into the scene of Anne Boleyn’s execution, and there’s no need to spell out who “he” is. On the second page, the executioner, who was brought over from France, refers to him as Cremuel (“No Frenchman can ever pronounce his name”), and finally, a few paragraphs later, when the swordsman is showing off the special blade he used on the queen, “he, Cromwell, touches a finger to the metal.” And we’re off, knowing that by the end it will be Cromwell’s head that rolls. (We can only hope his executioner will be as meticulous.) In the meantime, we get more of everything we’d expect from Mantel’s evocation of the reign of Henry VIII: power, rivalry, strategy, love, loyalty, ambition, regret, loneliness, lust—all centered on the magnetic Cromwell, a man who knows everything from the number of soldiers commanded by each nobleman in England to the secret desires of their wives and daughters. The narrative voice is as supple and insinuating as ever, but the tone is more contemplative—now that the newly made Lord Cromwell has attained the loftiest heights, he returns often to certain touchstones from his past—while the momentum drives forward to our hero’s inevitable fall. (Perhaps it could have driven forward a little more relentlessly; it does occasionally idle.) Cromwell has become almost a bogeyman to the people of England, and Mantel describes his reputation with characteristic dry humor: “He means to…tamper with the baker’s scales, and fix liquid measures in his favour. The man is like a weasel, who eats his own weight every day.” Mantel has created a vivid 16th-century universe, but sometimes it feels like she’s speaking directly to her modern reader, particularly about the role of women: “Try smiling. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel. Not that you can put it like that to a woman…she might take it badly.”
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.
Combining an unerring instinct for telling detail with the broader brushstrokes you need to tackle issues of culture and politics, Patchett (The Magician’s Assistant, 1997, etc.) creates a remarkably compelling chronicle of a multinational group of the rich and powerful held hostage for months.
An unnamed impoverished South American country hopes to woo business from a rich Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa, by hosting a birthday party at which his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, entertains. Because the president refuses to miss his soap opera, the vice-president hosts the party. An invading band of terrorists, who planned to kidnap the president, find themselves instead with dozens of hostages on their hands. They free the less important men and all the women except Roxane. As the remaining hostages and their captors settle in, Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s multilingual translator, becomes the group’s communication link, Roxane and her music its unifying heart. Patchett weaves individual histories of the hostages and the not-so-terrifying terrorists within a tapestry of their present life together. The most minor character breathes with life. Each page is dense with incident, the smallest details magnified by the drama of the situation and by the intensity confinement always creates. The outside world recedes as time seems to stop; the boundaries between captive and captor blur. In pellucid prose, Patchett grapples with issues of complexity and moral ambiguity that arise as confinement becomes not only a way of life but also for some, both hostage and hostage-taker, a life preferable to their previous existence. Readers may intellectually reject the author’s willingness to embrace the terrorists’ humanity, but only the hardest heart will not succumb. Conventional romantic love also flowers, between Gen and Carmen, a beguilingly innocent terrorist, between Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane. Even more compelling are the protective, almost familial affections that arise, the small acts of kindness in what is, inevitably, a tragedy.
Mischievous social comedy and subtle portrayals of characters simultaneously thrown together and isolated by their own solipsism—all in an enchanting fifth novel from the South African-born English author (Temples of Delight, 1991, etc.)
Three narrators alternate their separate stories of several families and sets of friends who variously recapitulate the romantic spirit embodied by 18-year-old Lydia Dent, killed in a car accident en route to a meeting with novelist Jonathan Goldman, with whom she shared an interest in minor German Romantic poet Wilhelm Muller (the source of Trapido’s title). Lydia’s older sister, Ellen, recalls the idyllic, willfully eccentric girlhood the siblings spent gently mocking their indulgent father and his businesslike second wife ("the Stepmother"). Jonathan himself recounts the mixed blessings of his wife Katherine’s mastery of conventional domesticity and parenting, the hair-raising rearing of their sickly, temperamental daughter, Stella (nicknamed “The Nuisance Chip” . . . “as if [she were] programmed for maximum nuisance capacity”), and his difficult relationship with his mistress, Sonia, a confident college administrator. The story’s third narrator is Stella, a pale “orange-haired” beauty and promising cellist who studies at Edinburgh University (around which the majority of Trapido’s characters gather), where she unwisely takes up with working-class Scots painter “Izzy” Tench, gets pregnant (with complications), and enters a companionable if loveless marriage with Peregrine “Pen” Massingham, a gentler breed of Scotsman who has his own reasons for being “sexually unfathomable.” The ensuing romantic and sexual complications are worked out with almost Shakespearean finesse and unpredictability (Ellen, for example, pairs up with Jonathan’s ridiculously handsome brother, Roger, “a disobliging nutcase with a set of unlikeable habits”).
Trapido blithely analyzes her people’s sometimes disastrous comings and goings in a bittersweet, often very sexy romance reminiscent of the fiction of Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge and perhaps Rose Macaulay. But she is triumphantly her own woman, and this is one of her most entertaining books.
The winner of the 2004 Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the 2004 Orange Prize—the first writer to win both for the same novel—draws on her Jamaican background in the alluring story of two couples, one Jamaican and one English, whose paths cross in WWII-era England.
The Jamaican Gilbert Joseph volunteers for the Royal Air Force, but life in England isn’t what he expected, with its tasteless boiled food and insidious racism. After the war, he returns to Jamaica but still hopes to study law in England, and when Hortense, a Jamaican teacher, offers him the money to travel to England if he’ll marry her, he agrees—only to discover, back in England, that he cannot study law and the best job he can find is as a postal-truck driver. When Hortense joins him six months later, she is not only shocked by his threadbare fifth-floor room but offended by the prejudice she encounters and discouraged when her Jamaican teacher’s credential is rejected. In the story of the adjustments these bright, well-educated and dignified immigrants must make, Gilbert’s earthiness offers a delicious counterpoint to Hortense’s prideful ambition. Other voices include that of the Josephs’ white landlady, Queenie Bligh, the daughter of a provincial butcher, and of her husband Bernard, an older bank clerk in India with the RAF. Queenie meets Gilbert during the war, when he once brings her wandering father-in-law back to her home. The father-in-law, shell-shocked in WWI, is killed by an MP during a brawl at the movies caused when Gilbert refuses to follow the “rules” that segregate the theater racially. When her husband Bernard doesn’t come home to their big London house after the war, Queenie takes in lodgers, including Gilbert and Hortense. The growing tensions among the three—and the disruption when Bernard returns at last—bring a spellbinding story to a surprising, heart-rending climax.
An enthralling tour de force that animates a chapter in the history of empire. This is Levy’s fourth novel, but first U.S. publication.
Atwood’s skillfully woven tenth novel is her most ambitious and challenging work to date, and a worthy successor to her recent triumph, Alias Grace (1996).
It tells two absorbing stories that cast an initially enigmatic, ultimately pitilessly revealing light on each other. The central one is octogenarian Iris Griffen’s bitter reminiscence of her life as the privileged daughter of a prosperous Ontario family, the Chases, and later as wife to Richard Griffen, the businessman who effectively inherits and firmly directs the Chase fortunes. The counterpart story, The Blind Assassin, is a strange futuristic tale that dramatizes in unusual (faux-Oriental) fashion a nameless woman’s obsession with a science-fiction writer whose imaginings blithely mirror and exploit his “power” over her. This latter tale is published as the work of Iris’s younger sister Laura, whose death in a 1945 automobile accident is judged by all who knew the sisters “as close to suicide as damn is to swearing.” Newspaper items reporting notable events in the lives of the Chases and Griffens over a period of more than sixty years further enrich a many-leveled, smartly paced narrative that gradually discloses the nature and root causes of Laura’s unconventionality and “madness,” the full extent of Richard’s compulsive aggrandizement and isolationism, and the price exacted from Iris for the “convenience” of her marriage. Intermittent echoes of Forster’s Howards End sound throughout this bleak saga of political, social, and gender conflict. And Atwood keeps our attention riveted by rendering her increasingly dramatic story in a fluent style distinguished by precise sensory description (“the thin, abstemious rain of early April”) and thought-provoking metaphor (“Laura was flint in a nest of thistledown”). Furthermore, a bombshell of a climactic surprise (which we probably should have seen coming) lurks in the stunning final pages.
Hazzard's most spacious fiction yet, spread over large expanses of time and situation that somehow remain intimate—a comic, social book that turns into a wise, sad one.
Caroline and Grace Bell, Australian orphan sisters, board after World War II at the home of a famous old English astronomer. Ted Tice, a young colleague of the famous man, falls in love with Caro (whose book this mainly is—excepting one luminous chapter in which an older Grace falls in love with her son's doctor). Caro, though, loves Paul Ivory, a playwright; and when he marries a lovelessly bitchy society woman (we later learn why), his betrayal feels so great that Caro can't properly bind the wound until she meets and marries a rich American with a social conscience, Adam Vail. After Adam's death in New York, Paul Ivory, his son dying of leukemia, calls on Caro to make a terrible confession—a murder by negligence, a witness (Ted Tice) silent all these years—that literally upends Caro's entire picture of her past, a whole life revised in an instant; Hazzard's finest stroke is making this true and real and horrible. How she does it is through a huge but lightsome charity toward the people in the book, as short or long as they come. A species of hyper-smart romantic fiction is avoided by the insistence not only on Venus' transit but on the wisdom of love, especially as women know it yet cannot keep it. And though the prose is at first a little daunting, unmodernly rich ("She was watching with some large feeling, less than love, in which approval and exasperation merged to a pang that Ted Tice should supply, in a little scene of varnished attitudes and systematic exchanges, the indispensable humanity"), once you get to know the characters, these Jamesian boluses dissolve.
A novel of empathy and depth, to be read with slow savor.
The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.
It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.
An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.