Alternative literary history—the conceit here is that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, both of whom traveled to Egypt in 1850, met on the voyage and developed an ardent friendship.
In 1850, Flaubert had not yet written Madame Bovary and Florence Nightingale was still looking for an outlet for a personality that identified with the suffering of the world and had yet found no proper channel for her empathy. Flaubert is traveling with Maxime du Camp, and both are worldly men, having frequented whorehouses over several continents. In fact, Flaubert is currently enamored with Kuchuk Hanem, whose sultry beauty he recalls with lascivious fondness—and this while having temporarily left his mistress, Louise Colet, back in France. In contrast, Nightingale is traveling with Charles and Selina Bracebridge, friends who also serve as chaperones, and she is trying to escape both a family that tries to rein in her assertive personality and a broken engagement to Richard Monckton Milnes, the English man of letters. Although Flaubert’s English is spotty, the language barrier is more than made up for by Nightingale’s excellent French. He begins addressing her as “My dear Rossignol [Nightingale],” and their conversation becomes increasingly intimate, as does their physical contact, the sensual novelist helping to loosen up the strait-laced Nightingale. Although they never consummate their relationship, the sexual energy increases dramatically when they take a caravan trip across the desert. By the end of the novel, Flaubert and Nightingale split up wistfully, neither overly nostalgic for what might have been.
By weaving her own imaginative constructions in with actual journal entries of both Flaubert and Nightingale, Shomer skillfully combines historical plausibility and historical truth.
Liberty and libertinage, reason and magic—the conflicting passions of the French Revolution swirl throughout the adventures of Elzelina van Aylde-Versfelt.
Based upon the real life of Maria Versfelt (alias Ida St. Elme)—courtesan, actress and writer—Graham’s (Stealing Fire, 2010, etc.) latest entwines history, romance and a delicious dollop of fantasy. Hearing voices and seeing ghosts in mirrors, the women of Elza’s family have always stood a bit outside society’s bounds. The mirrors and the death of her only son, Charles, have maddened Elza’s mother. Elza comforts her mother by cross-dressing as Charles, which soon becomes a habit—for it is, indeed, easier and safer to travel as a man. Soon, Charles becomes an alter ego. In addition to teasing gender lines, Elza has herself seen the image of her true love in the tarot card image of the King of Chalices. By 12, she has been coerced into marriage to handsome Jan Ringeling. Seven years and two children later, she finds herself chained to a cold man with political aspirations but little talent. Elza makes a daring escape, cross-dressing and fleeing her enraged husband (who threatens to have her confined as mad, just like her mother). She seeks protection from a commander in the French army, the brilliant military strategist Victor Moreau. Yet his protection comes at an interesting price: Elza must become his mistress. So begins an erotic metamorphosis from Elza, the dutiful wife, to Ida, the seductive courtesan. On Moreau’s arm, Ida enters Parisian society, gaining admiration from men and women alike. Yet, the tarot card reading lingers with her. While she respects Victor, she longs to find the King of Chalices. On her journey towards her red-haired beloved, Ida/Elza becomes an actress, a medium channeling an angel and even Bonaparte’s paramour.
Second in Mantel’s trilogy charting the Machiavellian trajectory of Thomas Cromwell.
The Booker award-winning first volume, Wolf Hall (2009), ended before the titular residence, that of Jane Seymour’s family, figured significantly in the life of King Henry VIII. Seeing through Cromwell’s eyes, a point of view she has thoroughly assimilated, Mantel approaches the major events slantwise, as Cromwell, charged with the practical details of managing Henry’s political and religious agendas, might have. We rejoin the characters as the king’s thousand-day marriage to Anne Boleyn is well along. Princess Elizabeth is a toddler, the exiled Queen Katherine is dying, and Henry’s disinherited daughter Princess Mary is under house arrest. As Master Secretary, Cromwell, while managing his own growing fortune, is always on call to put out fires at the court of the mercurial Henry (who, even for a king, is the ultimate Bad Boss). The English people, not to mention much of Europe, have never accepted Henry’s second marriage as valid, and Anne’s upstart relatives are annoying some of Britain’s more entrenched nobility with their arrogance and preening. Anne has failed to produce a son, and despite Cromwell’s efforts to warn her (the two were once allies of a sort), she refuses to alter her flamboyant behavior, even as Henry is increasingly beguiled by Jane Seymour’s contrasting (some would say calculated) modesty. Cromwell, a key player in the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, must now find a pretext for the dismantling of a second. Once he begins interrogating, with threats of torture, Anne’s male retainers to gather evidence of her adulteries, Mantel has a difficult challenge in keeping up our sympathy for Cromwell. She succeeds, mostly by portraying Cromwell as acutely aware that one misstep could land “him, Cromwell” on the scaffold as well. That misstep will happen, but not in this book.
The inventiveness of Mantel’s language is the chief draw here; the plot, as such, will engage only the most determined of Tudor enthusiasts.
The latest of Gregory’s Cousins’ War series debunks—mostly—the disparaging myths surrounding Richard III and his marriage to Anne Neville.
Anne and her sister Isabel are both used without hesitation as political bargaining chips by their father, Richard, Earl of Warwick. True to his sobriquet, "Kingmaker," Warwick engineered the downfall of the Lancastrian King Henry VI after Henry succumbed to mental illness and supplanted him with Edward IV, scion of the Yorkist-Plantagenet claims to the English succession. Increasingly disenchanted by the degree to which Edward is allowing his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to dole out favors to her large family, Warwick marries Isabel off to George, Duke of Clarence, Edward’s brother, on the theory that George, next in line for the throne, can dislodge his older brother. When George fails at this, Warwick gives Anne, barely 14, in marriage to Henry’s son, Edward and, together with his former enemy, Margaret of Anjou (Henry’s exiled consort), attempts a coup that fails miserably, bringing us to the time period chronicled in Shakespeare’s Tudor/Lancaster-biased take on events. With her father and new husband slain in battle and mother and mother-in-law either in prison or otherwise defanged, Anne is left penniless. Her brother-in-law, George, and her own sister have taken her inheritance and are keeping her a virtual servant. King Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, rescues Anne, marries her and uses some unorthodox means to regain her inheritance (while ensuring that it all belongs to him). The marriage, unlike the sinister seduction depicted by Shakespeare, is presented as a genuine love match (aside from some doubt about that tricky prenup). The chief threat to the realm is not Richard but Queen Elizabeth: A reputed witch with a grudge against Warwick’s daughters (Warwick killed her father and brother), she will not be happy until Isabel, Anne and their progeny (and if necessary her brothers-in-law) are dead.
Although their fates are known, Gregory creates suspense by raising intriguing questions about whether her characters will transcend their historical reputations.
What if Kit Marlowe wasn’t really killed in a tavern brawl? What if he escaped and became the secret scribe of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets?
Ros Barber (Material, 2008, etc.) cunningly uses her own poetic skills to craft this startling chronicle of Marlowe’s life in verse—mostly blank verse. Winner of the 2011 Hoffman Prize, this debut novel adds a rich new voice to the conversation about Christopher Marlowe’s life and work, including the possibility that some or all of Shakespeare’s works belong instead to Marlowe. Barber’s Marlowe is a smart, witty, struggling, bisexual playwright. Through his friendship with Tom Watson, he is drawn into service, becoming an intelligencer, a spy for the queen. The dangers of espionage vie with the jealousies of the other playwrights, and Marlowe must deftly avoid not only detection, but also giving offense. Although Marlowe learns that the most dangerous secrets are hidden in plain sight, he resists seeing that his own professed atheism may be more hazardous than the queen’s secrets or his own talents. To save his life, his death must be faked. Worse, he must erase his own name from history, giving his plays and sonnets to a dull man named Shakespeare. With the force of fate, his dual lives as deceiver and dramatist entwine to deprive him of true self and true story. At points, the poetry gets in the way of the story, becoming cumbersome rather than nimble. Yet, telling the tale in verse is a clever choice, and Barber’s poetry is often rich with imagery, evoking the beauty of Marlowe’s own artistry as well as the mysterious, often ominous, world of shadowy political machinations. A spy’s code, the poetry allows Marlowe to tell his true story, reclaiming his own name.
Lush, inspired and provocative, this spellbinding dossier conjures up a bewitching Marlowe.
From the intimate domestic circles of the political elite, a dressmaker witnesses the upheavals of 19th-century America.
Chiaverini (The Giving Quilt, 2012, etc.) sets aside her Elm Creek Quilts series for this historical novel about Elizabeth Keckley. Drawing upon the rich milieu of Civil War America, as well as Keckley’s own memoir (published in 1868 as Behind the Scenes), Chiaverini weaves the story of a woman who lived as both slave and freedwoman. Elizabeth learns her trade by making clothes for her fellow slaves, and once freed, she plies her needle so skillfully that the wives of Republicans and Democrats clamor for her designs. Varina, the second wife of Jefferson Davis, even seeks to take Elizabeth with her to Montgomery when the South secedes and her husband becomes president of the Confederacy. Despite her desire to journey with Varina, Elizabeth decides to stay in Washington, since traveling further South will erase most of her freedoms. Her decision leads to her new position as Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste. Elizabeth not only designs and sews Mary’s clothes, but she also arranges her hair, helps her dress, cares for her children at times and becomes her confidante. As others nearly shun Mary for her extravagances during wartime, not to mention her mercurial personality, she relies more and more heavily upon Elizabeth. Their relationship affords an interesting perspective for viewing the cultural and social turmoil of the times, for no matter how much Elizabeth is respected for her skills and no matter how intimately Mary trusts her with her confidences, Elizabeth remains a former slave, and she must be reminded of her place.
While the backdrop is strikingly vivid, Chiaverini’s domestic tale dawdles too often in the details of dress fittings and quilt piecings, leaving Elizabeth’s emotional terrain glimpsed but not traveled.
As the Revolutionary War looms, a colonial wife struggles to survive after her husband wanders away.
The unnamed principal narrator of Wade’s first novel was born into privilege, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and shipbuilder. Her mistake is her marriage to a feckless man who uses her dowry to buy a remote farm at the foot of the Catskills. After fathering two children, a son (also unnamed) and a daughter, Judith (a secondary narrator), the husband grows increasingly recalcitrant and balks at doing any work. The wife takes up the slack with her Dutch work ethic, but her nagging (the local townsfolk will gossip) finally drives the husband off. Leaving one day in a huff with his dog, Wolf, the husband disappears into the vast wilderness surrounding the settlement. The dog returns alone, and a search by neighbors proves fruitless. Finding that she is pregnant, the woman enters the woods to seek an abortion remedy from Indian women. For the next seven years, she works and manages the farm with only her two children as helpers. She trades butter and cheese at the village market, but no one buys her sausage. Gradually, her children learn the reason she is ostracized by the village: Not only is she a reputed shrew, she is rumored to have murdered her husband and ground him into wurst. Judith, eager for knowledge, is the protégée of the local schoolmaster, while her brother grows increasingly withdrawn. When war comes, the small family scatters in three directions. The last section of the novel, narrated by Judith, who has been far more fortunate in her marriage, skirts direct revelation of what befell her father. According to Wade’s afternote, the narrative is the back story of certain Washington Irving tales. Her decision, however, to substitute Judith’s generalized observations on mythmaking and legend for a detailed explanation of the father’s disappearance, is unfortunate.
Still, a spellbinding depiction of the hardships faced by a woman fighting her own war of independence.
A curiously structured historical whodunit by Tudor doyenne Weir (Henry VIII, 2001, etc.).
There’s a certain kind of historical obsessive, found mostly in Britain laboring alongside the Earl of Oxford vs. Shakespeare set, who argues that Richard III had nothing but love for the tykes known as the “boy princes” whom he shut away in the Tower of London, the Abu Ghraib of the late Middle Ages, from whom nary a peep would emerge again. A person of such a bent might wax wroth, to be sure, on reading Weir’s imaginative view of events. Other readers will wonder at her narrative strategy, bracketed by the points of view of two women separated by a century: Lady Jane Grey’s sister Katherine on one hand, and Kate Plantagenet on the other. Both young women, scarcely teenagers when thrust into the limelight, are bound up in the intrigues so beloved of royals and nobles back in the day; both wind up doing time in the pokey, where they have ample leisure to ponder the fates of the young boys. Weir’s tendency to didacticism sometimes slows what is already a complex tale, and the proceedings can be a little talky; just so, the interweaving of the tales of the two Kates doesn’t always quite work. Still, no one alive knows as much about the Tudors as Weir; her historical facts and speculations alike are watertight, and any reader of Hilary Mantel’s excellent Tudor evocations will want to explore this book as well. Weir’s language is often as glorious as the tongue back in those endlessly inventive days: “Through the enticement of your whoredom, you sought to entrap me with some poisoned bait under the color of sugared friendship.” Zounds!
Did Richard III do in or merely discourage—“ ‘suppressed,’ mark you, not murdered”—his youngster kin? Read on.
Sexism, violence and skullduggery cast 16th-century Iran into turmoil in the second historical novel by Amirrezvani (The Blood of Flowers, 2007).
Javaher, a eunuch, is the loyal servant of Princess Pari, a wise if occasionally headstrong daughter of the shah. He admires both her strong will and her generosity to the impoverished women who come to her for support. But he has personal motives for getting close to the upper tier of Iranian royalty: He is determined to learn who among the nation’s elite is responsible for his father’s murder. That’s what prompted him to become a eunuch and thus enter the court, a transformation that Amirrezvani describes in visceral and surprisingly sensuous detail; though the process itself is unsettling, Javaher becomes an attentive lover, in keeping with his acuity for understanding people’s motivations. His best-laid plans are upset when the shah dies and is replaced with his son Isma‘il, who begins a reign that is neglectful, deadly and petty, and that threatens to break down the fragile truces with neighboring lands. Pari, marginalized by Isma‘il’s tyrannical behavior and overall sexism in the court, begins a scheme to end his reign, with Javaher serving as assistant, sounding board and spy. Making Javaher central to the story is an ingenious tactic on Amirrezvani’s part; his role allows him to navigate the highest and lowest castes of Iranian society, and though the cast of characters is large, the nature of the disputes never become too baroque. The story is bogged down somewhat, though, by many interior scenes that are big on platitude-heavy courtly language. A subplot involving Javaher’s sister has little spark, and even the mystery of his father’s murder lacks much drama. But as Isma‘il’s reign lurches toward its inevitable fate, the closing chapters gain momentum.
An expertly woven, if occasionally talky, tale of gender rights and freedom.
In this epic novel, Ennis gives ample evidence that political and religious corruption in early-16th-century Italy makes anything vaguely analogous look like Sunnybrook Farm.
At the center of this swirling unscrupulousness are several key historical figures, most notably the ruthless Duke Valentino of Romagna; his equally merciless father, Pope Alexander VI; a brilliant military engineer and draftsman named Leonardo da Vinci; and Niccolo Machiavelli, who bases his political theory of power on the machinations of the aforementioned duke. The first narrator in this labyrinthine tale is Damiata, whose son is kidnapped by his grandfather, the pope, in a raw display of power and privilege. (Perhaps it’s not necessary to mention that these are all Borgias, so in Renaissance Italy, raw displays of power are as common as segreto sauce.) Damiata is one of the “cortigiane oneste” or “honest courtesans”—or even more colloquially, a whore with the proverbial heart of gold. If political intrigue is not enough, there have also recently been some serial killings in which the victims were dismembered and decapitated. Enter Leonardo, who plots the found body parts on a map of Imola, the city in which the gruesome murders occurred, and discovers that the points correspond to those consistent with an Archimedean spiral. The narrative switches over to Machiavelli, who reminisces about the events of 1502 in which Italy is in turmoil, owing at least in part to the assassination of Pope Alexander’s beloved son, Juan, brother to the duke and lover of Damiata. Enlisting the help of Machiavelli in solving this murder mystery, she and Machiavelli become both lovers and fellow detectives.
This is a dense narrative, permeated by the sights, sounds and smells of Renaissance Italy, and one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, with which it is sure to be compared.
Award-winning poet Nicholas (Iron Rose, 2010, etc.) treks into the wilds of medieval England in his first novel, a saga vibrant with artful description.
Maeve, known as Molly in England, is an Irish warrior queen, musician and healer. Exiled, she leads a caravan populated by Jack, once a crusader, now her companion; Nemain, her granddaughter; and Hob, an orphan put in her care by an aging priest. In baleful winter weather, Molly’s troop travels toward Durham, taking refuge first at St. Germaine de la Roche, a mountain monastery. An ominous atmosphere descends when one of the guardian monks, Brother Athanasius, is discovered dismembered nearby. Nicholas adeptly creates the medieval world, intriguingly populated by guilders, knights and wayfarers from faraway Lietuva. The group next stops at a vibrant country inn, a near-fortress against bandits, run by Osbert atte Well. Nicholas’ language, its relevance to ancient times in syntax and vocabulary, and his extensive research into medieval England, bring this book to life in a brilliant fashion. Nicholas’ descriptions of life at the inn and later at the redoubt of the Norman, Sir Jehan, the Sieur De Blanchefontaine, are superbly realistic. With religious pilgrims tagging along, Molly’s troop is attacked by bandits after they leave Osbert’s inn and are forced to return to its safer confines. But the inn has been destroyed, every creature massacred. Both Molly and Nemain know something wicked haunts the North Country, but it isn’t until they seek shelter from a blizzard in Castle Blanchefontaine that the two seers understand a shape-shifter, a beserker, runs amok. Nicholas’ portrayal of Blanchefontaine and its inhabitants, from castellan to page, rings with authenticity. It slowly unfolds that the shape-shifter lurks among the castle refugees, and an epic battle unfolds. Nicholas’ final chapters wind down the story and set young Hob on the path to become the warrior consort of Nemain, destined to return triumphantly to Eire.
A hauntingly affecting historical novel with a touch of magic.
The rip-roaring tale of a young follower of Robin Hood and their mission to rescue King Richard from captivity in A.D. 1192.
Alan Dale is a painfully old man of about 60 who writes of his past exploits as a brave and idealistic 20-year-old lad. The youth greatly admires the Earl of Locksley, an amoral rascal who goes by the name Robin Hood and has a habit of robbing rich travelers as they journey through Sherwood Forest. (If he also gives to the poor, Dale makes little note of it.) Robin Hood’s great enemy is Murdac, the high sheriff of Nottingham, and judging from their actions, neither is bound for sainthood. Mr. Hood takes men’s lives as well as their riches and harbors a cheerful though private contempt for all matters religious. Murdac is portrayed as a murderous weasel. Meanwhile, King Richard has been kidnapped and held for ransom on his way back from the third Crusade, and it’s going to take a lot of silver to purchase his release. Will Richard make it home before his brother John usurps the throne? Inspired by but not slavish to historical events of the Dark Ages, this book is full of twists and turns. Donald clearly has done considerable homework as he outfits his characters with hauberks, chausses and misericords (stilettos) and even acquaints the reader with Nottingham Castle’s stinking privy. In a historical note at the end, Donald acknowledges where he has taken liberties with history for the sake of a good story. He writes spectacular fight scenes full of blood and gore where even the good guys are murderers, and a couple of the characters indulge in imaginative blasphemy that could curdle Christian blood.
The last six years of Napoleon’s empire, as witnessed by Bonaparte’s sister, her Haitian retainer and the Hapsburg princess Empress Marie-Louise, Joséphine’s successor.
Title aside, this is an ensemble piece in which the above three narrators carry equal weight. Marie-Louise, daughter of the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, tries to avoid a match with Bonaparte, whose conquest of Europe has bankrupted her father’s kingdom. However, no one dares refuse Napoleon, even though he is not yet divorced from first wife Joséphine, who still has the title of empress. Brought to Napoleon’s palace in the Tuileries, Marie-Louise is shocked by the degree to which his large, squabbling Corsican family holds sway over the conqueror. His sister, Pauline, who may be suffering from the mentally debilitating effects of mercury treatment for gonorrhea, pictures herself as Cleopatra, surrounded by the spoils of her brother’s victory in Egypt, dreaming of ruling at his side as his incestuous consort. Although she initially befriends the young second empress, Pauline continues to machinate against her, particularly after Marie-Louise gives birth to Napoleon’s longed-for male heir, Franz. Pauline’s devoted chamberlain, Paul, son of a French planter and an African slave, is at first devoted, even infatuated with Pauline, who rescued him after his family was massacred during the Haitian revolution. However, her antics (she uses female courtiers as footstools, bathes in milk and is unabashedly promiscuous) and scheming erode Paul’s admiration. After Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign results in his disgrace and temporary exile to Elba, all three narrators return to their true homes: Marie-Louise to Austria and her lover, Count Adam Neipperg; Paul to Haiti; and Pauline to her brother’s side to help him plan his short-lived return to power. With excerpts from Napoleon’s and Josephine’s (always cordial, even post-rupture) correspondence thrown in, the novel is mostly unfocused, other than to demonstrate how fortunate (and undeserving) Napoleon was to be surrounded by such loyal, or at least dutiful, women.
Smilevski creates a fictionalized version of the life of Freud’s sister in a superb debut.
On the brink of World War II, Sigmund Freud receives permission for a chosen group of family and friends to leave Austria for England. Among those he elects to take with him are his doctor and his dog, but Freud excludes his four sisters and assures them that the situation is only temporary. Elderly and in declining health, Paulina, Rosa, Marie and Adolfina are transported with other Jews to a concentration camp, and eventually, they perish in the gas chambers. Smilevski’s award-winning narrative—he won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010—is translated from his native Macedonian and gives voice to Adolfina. Six years younger and once close to her brother, she is the product of a distant father and a verbally abusive mother who constantly lashes out at the daughter whom she tells should never have been born. Lacking formal education and remaining a lifelong spinster, Adolfina remains in the background and, from her vantage point, offers keen insight into the Freud family dynamics. Her brother, around whom the family revolves, is a genius whose star soars while Adolfina suffers years of neglect (she is, after all, merely a woman), an ill-fated love affair, confinement in a psychiatric clinic, where silence is a prized commodity for Adolfina and her friend Klara, and the responsibility of caring for her aging mother. Based in part on true events, the book probes numerous aspects of psychoanalytic theory through the characters’ conversations, actions and reflections: the psychosexual development of the individual, the nature of mental illness, the roles of the conscious and the unconscious, and religion. Each falls naturally into the narrative and serves to enhance a balanced, provocative and poignant story.
The acclaimed mystery writer again tries his hand at historical fiction, combining period detail from the Prohibition era with the depth of character and twists of plot that have won him such a devoted readership.
Though this novel serves as a sequel to The Given Day (2008), it can be read independently of Lehane’s previous historical novel and is closer in its page-turning narrative momentum to his more contemporary thrillers such as Mystic River (2001). Its protagonist is Joe Coughlin, the morally conflicted youngest son of a corrupt Boston police official (oldest brother Danny was protagonist of the previous novel and makes a cameo appearance here). One of the more compelling characters ever created by Lehane, Joe is a bright young man raised in an economically privileged Irish household who turned to crime as a teenager because “it was fun and he was good at it.” He’s the product of a loveless marriage, for whom “the hole at the center of his house had been a hole at the center of his parents and one day the hole had found the center of Joe.” Among the ways he tries to fill that hole is through love and loyalty, both of which put him at odds with the prevailing ethos of the gang bosses among whom he finds himself caught in the crossfire. He ultimately builds a bootlegging empire in Tampa, backed by a vicious gang lord whose rival had tried to kill Joe, and he falls in love with a Cuban woman whose penchant for social justice receives a boost from his illegal profits. (“Good deeds, since the dawn of time, had often followed bad money,” writes Lehane.) Neither as epic in scope nor as literarily ambitious as its predecessor, the novel builds to a powerful series of climaxes, following betrayal upon betrayal, which will satisfy Lehane’s fans and deserves to extend his readership as well.
Power, lust and moral ambiguity combine for an all-American explosion of fictional fireworks.
In his debut about 1943 Berlin, Gillham uses elements common to the many previous movies and books about World War II—from vicious Nazis to black marketeers to Jewish children hiding in attics to beautiful blond German women hiding their sexuality inside drab coats—yet manages to make the story fresh.
The blond beauty is Sigrid, a stenographer living alone with her unpleasant mother-in-law while her husband, Kaspar, serves on the eastern front. Sigrid’s Berlin is a grim city full of suspicious, fearful citizens barely coping with shortages and almost nightly air raids, people not above turning each other over to the Gestapo for unpatriotic behavior. But Sigrid is mostly consumed in pining not for Kaspar but for Egon, the Jewish black markeeter with whom she carried on a passionate affair before he went into hiding. At first, Sigrid resists when Ericha, a rebellious teenager living in her building, involves her in an underground network hiding Jews, but iconoclast Sigrid soon finds that her experience as Egon’s occasional “bagman” serves her well as she delivers supplies and humans to a safe house. At the same time, she befriends new neighbors, two sisters and their wounded-officer brother, Wolfram, whose impeccable German credentials are not what they seem. Sigrid finds herself wondering if a particular Jewish woman with two daughters in hiding might be Egon’s wife. But when Egon reappears in her life, she doesn’t bring up her suspicions. Instead she hides him in her neighbors’ apartment, an awkward situation given that she has recently begun what she considers a purely sexual affair with Wolfram. The wounded and embittered Kaspar’s return only complicates the situation. With her underground activities as intricate as her love life, Sigrid can trust no one, yet must trust a dangerously wider circle of acquaintances until the hold-your-breath suspense ending.
On the lawless streets of the 19th-century Lower East Side, a 12-year-old girl’s choices seem limited to servitude or prostitution.
McKay (The Birth House, 2006), who based this story in part on her family history, makes palpable the poverty and desperation that lead a gypsy fortuneteller to sell her daughter Moth as a maid to the abusive Mrs. Wentworth. Moth matter-of-factly accepts her fate, until Mrs. Wentworth’s ill-treatment moves from blows to attacks with scissors. The kindhearted butler, Nestor, instructs her to take two pieces from Mrs. Wentworth’s jewelry box: one for him, and one for Moth to sell to the fence whose address he provides. The money doesn’t last long, her mother has vanished, and with her face covered with bruises and her hair hacked off, Moth can’t get hired for even the lowest jobs. McKay supplements Moth’s first-person narrative with marginal notes and newspaper reports provided by a female doctor (in fact, the author’s great-great-grandmother) about everything from the plight of vagrant children to the “virgin cure,” a ghastly belief that having sex with a virgin will cure a man of venereal disease. With all this background, it’s entirely understandable that Moth walks into the brothel of Miss Everett with open eyes, knowing that she’ll be fed, clothed and displayed until one of the customers pays a premium to deflower her. There’s not much plot here, only Moth’s increasing doubts as the fates of her peers at Miss Everett’s reveal that a whore’s life is only slightly better than starving, while Dr. Sadie tries to persuade her that she has other options. Strongly delineated characters and a vivid historical backdrop make up for the lack of narrative energy in this reflective novel, which quietly conveys fierce indignation about the savagery with which the rich prey on the poor in a world ruled by money.