The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore (1997)

The Magician’s Wife is historical fiction, set in 1856 France and Algeria.

Brian Moore 100

This is the final read for #BrianMoore100, a year of reading his novel’s in what would been the Northern Irish novelist’s 100th year.

This year, I managed to read and review Lies of SilenceThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneThe Doctor’s Wife and now The Magician’s Wife. I enjoyed all of them and plan to continue reading more of his work in the year ahead.

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand’s Letters

According to New York Times essayist and reviewer Thomas Mallon, Brian Moore, in discussing the origins of The Magician’s Wife, gave credit to a note in Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray’s translation of The Correspondence of George Sand & Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert was complaining about the French government and their political priorities, and in his letter to Sand he writes:

“But before concerning ourselves with “social security” and even with agriculture, we send a Robert-Houdin to all the villages of France to work miracles!”

The associated footnote further explains:

In 1856 the French government had sent the celebrated conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to North Africa in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population. His feats, announced as “miracles”, were a great success.

Strangely, the footnote erroneously names the magician in parentheses as Houdini, however, Harry Houdini changed his name (from Ehrich Weisz) in honour of his mentor Robert-Houdin.

In the novel, the character of the magician, Henri Lambert, is inspired by the historical character of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Review

France 1856 Algeria Robert Houdin MaraboutsBeing historical fiction, The Magician’s Wife became one of those books that I often put down to look up the historical characters, such as Napoleon III (the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte – he was the son of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais who married Napoleon’s brother Louis) and his wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. His reign was referred to as the Second Empire and lasted for 18 years (1852-1870).

The first half of the novel is set in France, in Tours, the home of the magician and his wife Emmeline, briefly in Paris, where she is outfitted for the pending visit to one of the Emperor’s chateau.

The second half is set in Algeria, in the cities of Algiers and Milianah.

The Emperor’s Invitation

When the magician Henri Lambert is visited by a highly ranked Colonel Deniau and subsequently invited by the Emperor to the autumn residence, Château de Compiègne for a week of events and festivities, Emmeline is curious as to why these men of politics are interested in her husband and unimpressed by the activities they drag her into.

napoleon III Second empire The Magicians Wife Brian MooreIt becomes clear, that this particular série or group of invitees, are people whose influence might be required, to assist the ruler in his campaigns.

Emmeline looked down the long table to where Lambert was as usual in animated conversation with his fellow diners. Not a first-tier série, this man says. Foreigners, bankers, people the Emperor wants to use in some way. What can he want from Henri?

Because the narrative is seen through the eyes of Emmeline, it remains a mystery for some time as to what use the magician might be to the Emperor, however both the Colonel and Napoleon III attempt to bring her close, in order to help persuade her husband of the mission they have in mind for him.

Colonial Conspirators

They want the Magician and his wife to go to Algeria, to perform tricks of illusion, posing as a superior French version of their influential marabouts (a kind of spiritual leader/healer/wise man), in order to inculcate fear of their power and diminish faith in their spiritual leadership. It was an attempt to destabilise and weaken people in preparation for the French armies to continue their conquest and colonisation of the country.

“There, marabouts or saints have a political and spiritual influence which is greater than the power of any ruler…And because of that, only the marabout can proclaim a jihad or holy war against us. At the moment, Your Majesty, all of Algeria is in thrall to a certain Bou-Aziz, a charismatic marabout who has risen up in the south and is said to possess miraculous powers.”

The Female Gaze

Brian Moore Algeria 1856 Magicians Wife

Photo by Noureddine Belfethi on Pexels.com

It is a fascinating story and all the more interesting because Moore chooses to view events and see those involved in this ‘act of illusion’ through the eyes of the accompanying wife.

Emmeline is never quite in support of the events she is dragged along to participate in, openly showing her disapproval despite their promises to elevate her and her husband in society.

Bored by her provincial marriage and uneventful home life, she briefly considers a liaison with the Colonel, initially responding to his attention, though sees through his contrived flattery and begins to resent him, seeing that he too is looking for acclaim and willing to use whatever means necessary.

A Desert Awakening

The Colonel warns her that a visit to Algeria will change her, and this perhaps is the only truth he speaks, for she has a kind of awakening herself, though not in a way that necessarily benefits the mission they are on.

The turning point for her comes, when their servant Jules falls sick and she is the only one to comfort him. What she learns about him in this little time they spend together, awakens her to certain realities about their lives and the impact of what they are doing there. She becomes the sole voice of conscience with regard to this duplicitous mission, moved by the words and aura of the spiritual leader.

She thought of Bou-Aziz, of his grave, dignified speech, of his resolve to pray for God’s guidance. And in that moment in the courtyard of a French fort surrounded by illimitable desert she remembered the Emperor’s study in Compiègne, the Emperor with his waxed moustaches and his lecher’s smile, puffing on his long cigar. ‘I have great plans for Algeria. In the spring, I will bring our armies to Africa, subdue the Kabylia region and complete our conquest of the entire country.’ But this conquest that the Emperor desired would not ‘civilise’ these people as he promised but instead bring more forts, more soldiers, more roads, more French colonists to profit from Algeria’s trade and crops. And more mahdis, more jihads, more repression.

It is extraordinary that Moore chose to write about this intriguing piece of history, given he was an Irish author living in exile in America, writing about French political activities in Algeria. As is to be expected, though it is a history far from home, he succeeds in making the story a conduit for many of his themes and literary preoccupations.

It was an insightful and sympathetic reading journey, to read about this period and event in history, from an alternative perspective, painted by the outsider, written through the eyes of another Brian Moore protagonist, a viewpoint he favoured, that of a woman.

And I’ll certainly be adding the Château de Compiègne to my list of near future places to visit.

Further Reading

Article New York Times: Sleight of Hand by Thomas Mallon

France Inter: Robert Houdin, un sorcier blanc en Algérie Dec 5, 2021

The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis

Tango Milongas Buenos Aires Argentina UruguayAn Immigrant Story

This is the story of Leda, a girl from a small Italian village outside of Naples, who when she learns that her cousin Dante is taking the ship to Buenos Aires to seek his fortune and future, attaches herself to him in the months before he leaves, making him make her a promise, to wait for her.

To follow him means becoming betrothed to him and the story opens with their proxy marriage, Leda marries Dante in the village, with her father-in-law standing in the place of the groom. Thus she sets off two years after the promise is made to join her husband, her father’s parting gift, the violin that belonged to her grandfather, the instrument she was never taught to play, but longed to know its secrets.

She was restless, she didn’t want to wait; if migration was the only way to push open the confines of her world, then she wanted it to happen now, she wanted to embark right along with Dante, cross the ocean and begin scraping her destiny out of foreign rock.

An Unforgiving city, Buenos Aires

On arrival in Buenos Aires, she is met by Arturo, who informs her of the dreadful accident. She discovers she in this bustling, unforgiving city, alone, without friends or family, a melange of voices and languages, familiar and unfamiliar. And as a young woman, the work she can do won’t be enough to keep on the room Dante had kept for them.

All the buildings were tall old mansions that the rich had abandoned to the foreign hordes decades ago, during a legendary bout of yellow fever. Stately houses now crowded with the families of the poor. Bakers and grocers with their wares in wood crates on the sidewalk, and cafés shut down to sleep for the day.

Music and Dance, The Tango

The novel is about Leda’s desire and determination, to make a life for herself, to play the violin, to live without being observed, to be the observer, to walk a fine line between freedom and safety, as she finds a way to enter the world of music, a world forbidden to women, as a man.

And isn’t that strange she thought, the way one city can swirl inside another; the way you can be in one country yet carry another country in your skin; the way a place is changed by whoever comes to it, the way silt silt invades the body of the river.

violin tango milongas buenos aires The Gods of Tango

Photo by Felipe Lima on Pexels.com

She arrived in Buenos Aires in 1913, just as the music of the tango was transforming. After weeks of watching, an opportunity arises to join a group when an altercation leads to the stabbing of a violinist. From there she, who has become he, is spotted by Santiago, a bandoneón (a type of concertina found in Argentina and Uruguay) player, who puts together a quartet and is aiming for a higher class of establishment, the cabaret and dance halls. Because the tango has crossed the ocean and sparked a fire in the night establishments of Paris.

The Old World, Europe, ignited by songs from the grim conventillos of New Babel. To think she’d crossed the ocean to find this Argentinian music, only to find it sailing back to Europe, closing a vast loop around the world.

Transformation and Transgression

The transformation in her life and work, follows that of the transformation of the tango, the addition of the bass, the piano and finally the addition of a voice, some instruments were rising into prominence while others began to disappear.

The tango without the bandoneón was no longer considered the tango. That strange German instrument had been absorbed into the music,, altering its essential texture and slowing its pace.

Leda finds a way to be one of the guys, unveiling her own passion as she navigates a dangerous situation that must remain secret if it is to be sustained.

Haunts of the Past

Throughout the novel, her thoughts return often to her childhood friend Cora, Dante’s sister. Something happened to Cora that haunts Leda, that she keeps suppressed, but the unwilling memories rise up and have their own effect on the decisions she makes, as she navigates the tricky path chosen.

It’s an enjoyable read and an insight into what must have awaited those who left Europe for Buenos Aires at the beginning of the twentieth century, what a tough environment it was for women to survive in and the development of this music and dance that came with its own set of rules and transgressions.

Carolina de Robertis, Author

tango Carolina de Robertis Gods of Tango Argentina

Photo by Marko Zirdum on Pexels.com

Carolina de Robertis, a writer of Uruguayan origins is the author of two earlier novels,  Perla (2012) and The Invisible Mountain (2009), translated into 17 languages.

Her most recent novel Cantoras (2019), a novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize

“I wanted to explore the immigrant experience, and for a woman immigrant, the only way for her to fully access the underworld of the tango on her own terms without becoming a prostitute was to dress as a man.”

Further Reading

NPR Interview: An Outsider In Buenos Aires Goes Incognito, For Love Of Tango

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

A historical fiction novel about words both entices and because of its popularity also made me hesitate.

Background

Scottish lexicographer Dr James Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884. The only word Dr Murray ever conceded had been overlooked was “bondmaid”, meaning a girl bound to serve without wages.

When author Pip Williams discovered this omission, the idea for her debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was born. Jenny Valentish, Guardian

Pip Williams Language Words DictionaryAnd so I dive in and find myself often using the dictionary feature on the kindle – yes there are a lot of lost words, or words that are no longer in common use, and one of the main words, and locations, the scriptorium had me confused right from the start – a tin shed where a few learned, self-important men are compiling the first edition of the Oxford dictionary? Even as I write these words, the spellcheck has underlined that word in red.

We are introduced to this place and the main character Esme as she is crawling around beneath the table in this scriptorium, we don’t understand a lot about why she is there, as her father appears to be raising her alone without childcare.

A slow build up in the early years, the pace picks up finally when Esme is old enough to go to town and meet a few unconventional women and hears new to her ears, ancient popular but unknown words, and when she meets Tilda, an actor and suffragette her vocabularly and life experience widen even further.

It is the late 1880’s, an era of slow progress, both on the dictionary and on the rights of women.

black and white book business close up

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Esme grows up and begins to work with her father, collecting “slips” and the necessary quotations, that give words the right to be part of this grand dictionary.

The problem being that much of a women’s world is left out, words that have existed, often for centuries, but have either not been written in any notable works or are deemed not appropriate for polite society. 

Esme has found her calling.

It’s an interesting journey through a particular period of history, though I found the character of Esme to be a little two-dimensional compared to some of the secondary characters and one of the characters appears mostly through letters, which rather than illuminate some of the mysteries in Esme’s life, just had me asking why this one character if she was so important to her life, wasn’t present. The story seemed to lose pace towards the end or perhaps just went on too long, as I began to lose interest.

There are moments of humour, but also predictability – in Esme’s 30’s her like of words pertaining to women and the poor are discovered by the villainous Dankworth, as the slips flutter to the floor, who should arrive but her literary knight (not yet in armour) Gareth, the compositeur. She ponders the words “manhandled, pillock and git”.

A slow consciousness raising and cast of characters across the class divine in Oxford, with the controlled compilation of the Dictionary at the centre of it.

Further Reading

Guardian Books: All words are not equal’: the debut novelist who’s become a lockdown sensation by Jenny Valentish

Lisa’s Review at ANZLitLover’s – a more passionate take on the history and the bias resulting from it being a virtually male endeavour

Guardian Review: A Gentle Hopeful Story 

 

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

“I have felt for years that there was much more to say about the psychic distance between west and east and those who tried to make that journey in the 19th century.” Rose Tremain

Islands of Mercy Rose TremainSet in late 1800’s Ireland, Bath, London and Borneo, this is the story of a community of people whose lives intersect in the town of Bath, a dual narrative of events concerning those who live there and the efforts of two men in Borneo with ambitions slightly at cross purposes.

As I reread Tremain’s quote above, and wonder about the journey’s taken by some of the characters, I realise the irony too in the different paths of what a journey west to east meant. For an ambitious woman travelled from Ireland to England and a man from England to Southeast Asia’s Malay archipalego.

The novel opens with the ambitious young woman Clorinda, who travels west to east, from Ireland to Bath, and after some months of work realising she is unlikely to raise her status to where she strives, she sells her family inheritance, a necklace of rubies, to purchase rooms she turns into a salon de thé, where society can mix and gather and she can listen and observe.

One afternoon she observes a couple in earnest conversation, until the young woman abruptly gets up to leave, having taken neither her tea or cake.

old temple facade reflecting in roman baths in england

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

The young woman Jane, referred to by locals as ‘Angel of the Baths’ is the daughter of the esteemed Doctor Adeane and known for her therapeutic treatments and hands on healing that relieve the aches of the body, the pains of their souls, her voice of encouragement leading them to bathe in the waters of Bath.

The young man is Valentine Ross, also a Doctor, who works for her father. His brother, inspired by Darwin and passionate about nature, is on an expedition and has just arrived where the second part of the narrative takes place, seeking refuge with an Englishman Sir Ralph Savage, referred to as Rajah Sir on the island of Borneo, where he has gifted a parcel of land in return for favours to the Sultan of Brunei, built himself an impressive mansion and is infatuated by a local man Leon, who harbours ambitions of his own.

After this encounter with Valentine, Jane goes to London to spend time with her childless, unmarried, financially independent Aunt Emmilene, an artist. She is like a mother to Jane and it is during this visit that Jane discovers more of the essence of who she is, an aspect captured by her Aunt in a portrait she sits for. The events that unfold create a significant dilemma for Jane, that she must navigate.

The world, Jane already knew, reeked horribly of old, exhausted things. Day could follow day without a single original or exciting moment stirring her pulse. But now Aunt Emmeline – by far the most exceptional and independent person the Adeane family – was going to reveal something new.

brown bare tree on brown rock formation

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Sir Ralph is intent on improving what the Creator has given him telling his lover that he wished to go down in history as one who had ‘enabled happiness’. Leon advises him to begin by building a road.

‘A road to where?’ Sir Ralph had asked.
‘Sir Raff,’ said Leon? ‘There is no “where” in Sarawak. There is only Nature. Men begin; Nature finishes.’
‘Then what is the point of the road?’
‘The point of the road is to try to be’.

The narrative in Borneo centres on the men and the colonial struggle, whether it’s to create manors and roads and capitalist ventures or chasing butterflies and being distracted by ruined goldmines. Regardless of their pursuits, there are warnings embedded in their endeavours and the risk of danger to those who are ignorant of the environment within which they operate.

At a certain point while reading, when I thought of all the female characters, and realised how strongly independent all of them were, and looked at the relationships they had to the men around them, I wondered if this novel was actually satire. For most of the yearning and longing is done by the male characters, the female characters are all strong and given the era and location, none of them sit around in parlours pining for suitors, they’re too busy creating their lives, working and supporting each other.

It highlights some of the issues of that era, but does so with a cast of characters that are not stereotypical, which makes it all the more interesting to read, because it defies expectation and presents an alternate scenario by focusing on those who defy convention, transgressing this straight-laced, Victorian society daring to live in ways outside mainstream society and getting away with it.

One of the more shocking historical revelations was the mention of the Private Member’s Bill entitled the Married Woman’s Property Act, a measure to address and reverse the fact that though an unmarried woman could inherit, by law, as soon as she married any property automatically was transferred to her husband.

At one point there is a conversation between Jane and her friends in London, where they discuss literature, a french author’s novel is set in a morgue and asks a lot of the reader, not least a strong stomach, they note there is nothing like it in England.

The French and the Russians are the only writers who follow a dark road like this one. Because they have no fear of scandal, no fear of fear. They show human life in all its difficulty. And they know that readers are wolves.
‘Wolves? I have never thought of them like that. Do you think Miss Austen’s readers are wolfish?
‘Yes, Even they. They tear at the flesh of her stories. They love to see the wicked punished or humiliated. Do we not gloat when Fanny Price rejects Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park?

It was an enjoyable read, albeit at times perplexing, because I kept asking myself questions about what the author was doing, when I realised and read more closely the difference in attitudes and dialogue of the male versus female characters. It had this daring and thought provoking intention, that didn’t quite come off in its execution, so there many moments of reader satisfaction. In a brilliant review in the FT, Natalie Whittle describes it exactly:

“In Islands of Mercy, Rose Tremain seizes the traditional image of a cautiously celibate Victorian England and blasts it with a suite of women for whom transgression leads neither to emancipation nor to damnation. Her female characters live spontaneously, sometimes dangerously, but they are not alone in making spirited sexual choices. And, in an act of pleasing literary reversal, it is a “fallen” man who leaves the country in desperate exile. These are the strengths of what is otherwise a problematic narrative, split neatly but strangely into two streams, one in Bath and the other in Borneo.” Natalie Whittle, FT

Further Reading

FT Review: Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain — Victorian transgressions

Review: by Lisa at ANZLitLovers

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf

One of the best works of historical fiction I have read in a while and all the better because its based on the author’s great-great grandparents own story, a reassuring factor while reading, because so many obstacles get in the way of the two main protagonists coming together, the young Irish immigrant Henry O’Toole and Sarah, the black slave he first encounters on the road in a storm, who treats his injured hand.

1840’s Virginia

The story is mostly set in 1840’s Virginia on Jubilee plantation. In the front of the book is a sketch of the property, showing the house, the slave huts, the cotton fields, the whipping tree, the kitchen gardens and kitchen house. There is also a map of the region inside the cover, showing where various important locations to the story are, giving it a strong sense of reality, a reminder that these are real locations, that continue to exist today.

“I remind myself that I’m Henry Taylor now. The further south I go, the less likely they’ll know me for Irish. With fewer immigrants down this way, our accents don’t count so much as Irish, Scottish or Swedish. We’re just foreign, which suits me fine. But I keep the Taylor. O’Toole is asking for trouble.”

inspired true story Irish immigrant black slaveHenry is making his living as a blacksmith, after the disappointment of arriving in New York and struggling to find work due to discrimination by employers against the Irish – Irish Need Not Apply.

His story begins in the fields of Ireland around the time of the potato famine and it is the memory of the cruelty of the English landlords that contributes to his sympathy towards the plight of the slaves, though blind to his own privilege. As he arrives on the plantation where Sarah works as a house slave, his ignorance of the South and their ways threatens to put her and those around her in danger.

The other main character is Maple, also a slave, but sister to the Master’s wife, they have the same father, but she became separated from her mother, husband and daughter when her sister married, forced to move with her. Maple is full of anger and desperate for news of her family. She resents the presence of the blacksmith and would like nothing better than to wipe the smile off Sarah’s face.

“I want to tell him to leave her alone. Leave all of us alone. Just ’cause that girl don’t know how to hold herself more precious don’t mean he ought to take advantage, dipping in and out like drinking at the well. He ain’t no different to the rest of them.”

Short Chapters, Three Characters, Fast Paced

The novel is written in short chapters, reminiscent of the style of Bernice McFadden and the issues raised by a mixed race couple reminded me also of Octavia Butler’s excellent novel Kindred.

There is a subtle rhythm in the narrative, where hopes are raised and dashed simultaneously, for Henry, Sarah and Maple. Henry wants to be close to Sarah while Maple wants to rescue her daughter, who lives on another plantation. Their actions in pursuit of their sole desire make it all the more difficult to achieve. It’s like a universal force that acts on them all at the same time, as their objectives and the means they use to attain them intersect, hinder and/or help them.

“There’s two ways to keep a child when you’re held a slave. You can hold her precious, right close to your heart, pouring all your love into her because you know you could lose her any day. Or you can hold her loose, not loving too deep or caring too much or getting too close, knowing that you could lose her any day. Two sides of the same fear.”

It’s a compelling read, with great characters and you really are left wanting to know more, wishing to know more about the lives of these three characters and those whom they are connected to. It’s a book that evokes a very visual response, I felt at times as if I were watching the scenes unfold and can imagine how much more tense it would have been to see this on screen.

Read Soul Lit

I read this along with Didi from Brown Girl Reading in the Read Soul Lit Feb Read Along Group, which is one of her initiatives for Black History Month in the US. I will reading a few more novels this month to acknowledge that as well, reviews to come of a Toni Morrison novel and Colson Whitehead.

About the Author

Tammye Huf is an American author now living in the UK. Her debut novel A More Perfect Union was inspired by the true story of her great-great grandparents, an exploration of identity, sacrifice, belonging, race and love. It was featured on the Jo Whiley Radio 2 Book Club.

Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines and she was named third-place winner of the London Magazine Short Story Prize in 2018 for ‘Prisoner’.

Further Reading

Kindred by Octavia Butler

The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Black History Month – 26 Black Americans You Don’t Know But Should

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War The Balkan TrilogyI’ve been aware of The Balkan Trilogy for a while and curious to discover it because of its international setting (Romania in the months leading up to the 2nd World War) though equally wary of English ex-pat protagonists living a life of privilege cosseted alongside a population suffering economic hardship and the imminent threat of being positioned between two untrustworthy powers (Russia and Germany).

This is the first of three books that make up Olivia Manning’s semi-autobiographical Fortunes of War or The Balkan Trilogy, there are another three that make up A Levant Trilogy. 

The story is chiefly about a young couple and their first year of marriage in Romania on the eve of war. Guy, a young English literature professor returns to Bucharest after a summer in England, with his new wife Harriet, a woman he met and married within a month. We know nothing about that month, their romance, or why/how they came together so impulsively.

Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty accompaniment of marriage.

Displacement Heightens Perceptive Ability

Over the course of the novel we get to know through Harriet’s perceptive observations and awareness of her own flaws and Guy’s, their characters, why they act in the way they do and the effect they have on each other, due to their differences. These aspects of personality are reflected through the way they interact and respond to others around them.

Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She herself had taken it for granted that it was for her alone.

It took a little while initially to overcome my reluctance in be among this crowd, (averse to novels where purposeless woman follow their husbands around wondering why they are unhappy with life), many of the characters and their behaviours in the set-up stage of the novel are tiresome, but the ability of Harriet to see through each of them, in an effort to better know her husband, after a while becomes more and more engaging.

Finding an Ally in Foreign Territory

She finds company in Guy’s friend Clarence, the similarity in their perceptions is both a comfort and an admission of her own more selfish inclinations.

The difficulty of dealing with Guy, she thought, lay in the fact that he was so often right. She and Clarence could claim that their evening had been spoilt by the presence of Dubedat. She knew it had, in fact, been spoilt not by Guy’s generosity but by their own lack of it.

Harriet lacks purpose and so it’s no surprise that her energy and focus turns towards analysing and judging others. In a way she reminded me of Hadley Richardson in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, women who find themselves in the shadows of the larger player, their husband’s lives, men whom other people are drawn too and seek attention from, leaving the wife as a companion and bed warmer for the few hours he finds himself solitary.

They too, are stories of the lives of young internationals, professors, diplomats, journalists, the locals they fall in with, the cafes, restaurants and hotels they frequent, the political background constantly a source of conversation, the lack of family and a rootlessness that drives them to seek each other out in this environment that throws people together, who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. Harriet however, due to her lack of involvement in events, becomes the detached witness, the reliable narrator, of character(s) and of this twentieth century war.

It is precisely her position as a civilian external to the public sphere and to the war effort, together with her apparent lack of faith in politics, that validates her as a detached witness. Carmen Andrés Oliver

Shakespeare Foretells All

Shakespeare Troilus and CressidaThe novel becomes even more interesting and ironic when Guy decides to produce an amateur production of the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida, deliberately diverting the attention of his fans and followers, young and old, at a time when war is creeping ever closer and everyone else not involved in his amateur dramatics is frantic with worry. The play is the tragic story of lovers set against the backdrop of war.

The Balkan Trilogy The Great Fortune

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Harriet is embarrassed by the idea of the play, sure it’s an endeavour that will fail, hoping it will, despite the fervour with which everyone invited to participate has responded.

Now she was beginning to realise she might be wrong. Contrary to her belief, people were not only willing to to join in, they were grateful at being included. Each seemed simply to have been waiting the opportunity to make a stage appearance.

Dropped as one of the players, Harriet is upstaged by Sophie, a woman whose affection for Guy and history that precedes her, adds to the tension of their marriage.

The Great Fortune is Life

As the novel ends, they take a look inside the window outside the German Bureau, where a map is updated daily and what they see leaves us wondering what will happen next, as Europe itself is a bed of tension and danger, depending on where one’s loyalties lie.

When they reached the window, they saw the dot of Paris hidden by a swastika that squatted like a spider, black on the heart of the country.

They stood staring at it for a while. Soberly, Guy asked: ‘What do you think will happen here? What are our chances?

Harriet responds:

We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.’

It is a unique novel in its close observation of the response to pending war of a small community of English people thrown together by circumstance, viewing the approaching war from inside a part of Europe that is less well traversed in English literature, given less attention at the time of writing and being rediscovered again now.

Olivia Manning, OBE (1908-1980)

Manning met her husband when he was on leave for a month in July 1939 from his first British Council post in Romania. They married in August and nine days later he was ordered back to Bucharest, so the couple left London as war was looking likely to commence. During the war, they lived in Romania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.

She returned to England in 1945. She wrote novels, short stories, sketches, screenplays, nonfiction books, essays and reviews. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died four years later.

The Great Fortune was first published in 1960.

N.B. This book was a review copy ebook, kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Tituba of Salem Village, A Novel Based on the Witch Trials of 1692 by Ann Petry (1956)

I read this for two reasons, one I’ve been wanting to read Ann Petry for a while, The Street and The Narrows were republished in 2020, so I’m looking forward to reading them, but the main reason I chose this title is because I’m an avid reader of Maryse Condé, who wrote I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. One of her inspirations was this book written for young people by Ann Petry, which predates her novel by 30 years, so it made sense for me to read this one first.

For her the story of Tituba was a story of courage in the face of adversity. It was a lesson of hope and dynamism.

Witch Trials of Salem, History

The witch trials of Salem began in March 1692 with the arrests of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and the black slave, Tituba, based on forced confessions. The trials were started after people had been accused of witchcraft, primarily by teenage girls, though traced to adult concerns and adult grievances. Quarrels and disputes with neighbors often incited witchcraft allegations.

Women who did not conform to the norms of Puritan society were more likely to be the target of an accusation, especially those who were unmarried or did not have children.

It marked the beginning of a period of paranoia in which nineteen women and one man were hanged, before the governor of the colony sent a report to London about the cases of 50 women and a general pardon was granted, putting an end to a disturbing chapter in the history of the village, subsequently renamed Danvers.

Though Tituba was acquitted, prisoners were required to pay the cost of their stay in prison, including the cost of chains and shackles. She was eventually sold for the price of those fees, though it is not known to whom. Ann Petry shares her theories, which we discover here, and Maryse Condé has another.

It is one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria,  a cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, fake news and lapses in due process.

Review

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsI had read nothing about the witch trials before, though I’d heard of them, but I’m glad that this was my introduction, to see this little segment of American history, through the eyes of the innocent black slave, Tituba and her husband John.

As the book opens and Tituba and John are in the kitchen of the Barbados home they live in, the scene is so evocative, you can’t imagine how their lives are going to change so abruptly, having been so stable for so long – but then the harsh reality of them being commodities, slaves, sold like jewels, to pay a debt, their lives irrevocably changed, within 24 hours they are on a ship heading for the Bay Colony of Boston, their new owner the Reverend Parris.

Her husband instills in her the importance of staying alive and maintaining good health.

“Remember, always remember, the slave must survive. No matter what happens to the master, the slave must survive.”

Petry’s descriptions of the environment are so evocative, the contrast so great, from the warmth of the island to the damp, unwelcoming cold climate of Massachusetts.

Tituba is caring and empathetic, she has a traditional knowledge of herbs from the island, learned from the women in her family, in Boston she searches in the woods for substitutes and is helped by another woman with knowledge of herbal medicine. She is sensitive to people, animals and the environment.

Tituba Samel witch cauldron fire

Photo by Plato Terentev on Pexels.com

Sometimes if she stood still, used all her senses, sight and sound and touch and small would make a place speak to her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

She decided it was not an evil house. It was sad and gloomy. Nothing about it suggested happiness in the future. It had been a long time since anyone had been happy in this house. People leave something of themselves in a house, and the spirit of this house was frighteningly sad.

However, these people live in fearful times and among people whose belief system instills fear and suspicion. They bear children whose imaginations run wild, their behaviour’s running even wilder.

She finally accepted the fact that Abigail was her enemy, and though young, a dangerous enemy. On the other hand, Samuel Conkin, the weaver, was her friend, and though a new friend, a very good friend.

Tituba Salem Witch Trials Weaver Thread Ann Petry

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Tituba is a wonderful character, depicted with compassion and understanding, put in a situation where young people are drawn towards her but unable to overcome their own inner hurts, exaggerate and invent scenarios, combining imagination and superstition, creating drama that spirals out of control into very real consequences for those accused of “witching”, until the farce that it is, becomes all too clear, though not without lives having been lost.

Elena Ferrante in The Lying Life of Adults shows that sometime erratic behaviour of an adolescent and its consequences. Ann Petry shows how childish games, immaturity, attention seeking and hurt can claim lives, and though her book offers a message of courage in the face of adversity, it also offers a warning to that same youthful audience, that lives can be irrevocably damaged by the actions of a few.

I loved the character Petry created, her many talents and her resilience and the imagined appreciation that did exist, even if that might have been willful fantasy, knowing that in the era in which she lived, it was rare indeed for any person who purchased a slave to treat them as her weaver did.

Petry offers perhaps the most persuasive explanation of all—that cruelty begets cruelty, among children as well as adults. At least half the novel takes place before the trials, building the case for the horrors that follow. Anna Mae Duane, The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, Johns Hopkins University Press

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Article, Smithsonian Magazine: Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the Star Witness of the Salem Witch Trials by Stacy Schiff; Nov 2015

Play: The Crucible (1952), by Arthur Miller

Essay: Ann Petry

Story of the Week: Harlem Ann Petry (1908-1997)

 

 

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela (2015)

Earlier this year I read my first book by Leila Aboulela Bird Summons (2019), a wonderful novel about three immigrant women, born in different countries but living in Scotland, setting off on a holiday in the Highlands, to pay homage to Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman convert to Islam to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

I really enjoyed it for many reasons, confirming I wished to read more of her work, thus I chose The Kindness of Enemies as her next book to read, one I have had my eye on for some years, having refused to buy earlier because of the dreadful cover. That may sound whimsical, but I think that earlier cover does this book a great disservice, the way it turns readers away.

Being Muslim and an Academic in 21st century Scotland

Hadji Murad Tolstoy Leila AboulelaI was completely drawn into the dual narrative story and loved both parts of it, modern day Scotland and mid 1800’s Russia and the Caucasus.

The contemporary story centres around Natasha Wilson (born Natasha Hussein to a Russian mother and Sudanese father, themselves the product of a Russian university education, her name is changed when her mother marries a Scot). A university lecturer in Scotland, her research concerns the life of the Caucasian Highlander, Shamil Imam.

Natasha is friends with Malak, of Russian/Persian parentage; her son Oz, is in her class and they possess a historical artefact belonging to Shamil Imam, due to an ancestral connection. Natasha is in their home when Oz is arrested for downloading  materials related to jihad and she too comes under suspicion, her telephone and laptop seized.

“I was seeing in these awkward composites my own liminal self. The two sides of me that were slammed together against their will, that refused to mix. I was a failed hybrid, made up of unalloyed selves. My Russian mother who regretted marrying my Sudanese father. My African father who came to hate his white wife. My atheist mother who blotted out my Muslim heritage. My Arab father who gave me up to Europe without a fight. I was the freak. I had been told so and I had been taught so and I had chewed on this verdict to the extent that, no matter what, I could never purge myself of it entirely.”

Meanwhile, in Sudan, her father whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years is dying and there is pressure for her to go and see him, along with feelings of resentment and ill-will, demanding her to stand up for herself and her existence, a daughter of mixed heritage, living a life she has created for herself.

“It was an effort formulating this summary, explaining myself. I preferred the distant past, centuries that were over and done with, ghosts that posed no direct threat. History could be milked for this cause or that. We observed it always with hindsight, projecting onto it our modern convictions and anxieties.”

Being Muslim and a Caucasian Highlander in the 19th century

Interwoven between chapters of Natasha’s story, we are transported to the Caucasus territory in the 1850’s, to a period during the conflict between the Highlander mountain men lead by Shamil Imam who were resisting Tsarist Russia from expanding into their territory.

Shamil Imam, the Chieftan of Dagestan, led an armed resistance for thirty years, he appears in Leo Tolstoy’s classic posthumous novella Hadji Murad.  Through imagination and historical fact, Leila Aboulela enters his territory and home, bringing us a view from the spaces women and children inhabit, not just that of men, as Tolstoy does.

Caucasus Pricess Anna of Georgia kidnap

In earlier years, to settle a conflict, Shamil was only able to negotiate peace by surrendering his son Jamaleldin, who for the next ten years or so was raised as part of the Tsar’s family (as his godson). Now Shamil’s men have captured the  Russian Princess Anna (previously of Georgia – her grandfather Gregory XI, the last King of Georgia, ceded the territory to Russia), her French governess and two children Alexander and Lydia.

“Nothing has caused me so much pain as treachery. If the Russians would fight me honourably, I would not mind living the rest of my life in a state of war. But they tricked me; in Akhulgo they treated me like a criminal, not a warrior, and they sent my son far away to St Petersburg.”

The Kindness of Enemies follows these stories and although one carries the heavyweight magnitude of a well-known story of significant characters in history, the foreshadowing of it by a modern story, brings to light the many aspects of the past, whose threads might be seen as being current today.

Kindness and Empathy, Another Perspective

Much of the literature of the Caucasus in the literary imagination is told from the Russian perspective, by grand novelists like Tolstoy and Pushkin, whereas Leila Aboulela, by setting this historical period during the time of the Princess’s capture, takes us on that journey, re-imagining events that took place, understanding better the complicated and mixed sympathies of Princess Anna, a young mother, exploring her loss and how those eight months in captivity might have changed her.

The Kindness of Enemies Leila Aboulela The Queen's Gambit

Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Pexels.com

She also presents the perspective of young Jamaleldin in another light, how his childhood memories lie dormant yet present, his mixed feelings of the return, his strange and estranged reality of feeling part of himself belonging to both worlds, the Highlands and to St Petersburg.

There was a time when it had all been much simpler. He rescued from the wild, Nicholas the benevolent godfather. He the pet, Nicholas the mighty. He the puppet, Nicholas the conductor, the thrower of crumbs, the arranger of roles, the changer of destinies. Jamaleldin the chess piece, and now Shamil had changed the rules of the game.

In the contemporary world, Natasha experiences something of the same, born of culturally different parents, spending her childhood in one country, her adulthood in another. She must create her own sense of belonging, to find peace of mind somehow. Being neither one thing or the other, having no one place called home, hers, by necessity is a spiritual journey, determined by the need for the soul to find home, rather than body or mind.

“I said that I was not a good Muslim but that I was not a bad person. I said I had a brother that I wanted to keep in touch with. I said that I wanted to give up my share of the inheritance to him. Apart from my father’s Russian books and Russian keepsakes, I wanted nothing. I said that I did not come here today to fight over money or for the share of a house. I came so that I would not be an outcast, so that I would, even in a small way, faintly, marginally, tentatively, belong.”

Highly Recommended.

My Reviews of Interest

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina tr. Lisa Hayden

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself, Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Further Reading/Watching

Interview: Leila Aboulela Discusses The Kindness of Enemies The Arab Weekly

Review: For the Joy of Reading: The Kindness of Enemies by David Kenvyn

Documentary: Mountain Men and Holy Wars – film-maker Taran Davies traces the life and legacy of Shamil Imam

Article: Why do we Continue to Use the Word Caucasian? by Yolanda Moses, Professor of Anthropology

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I was eager to read The Shadow King (shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020) to learn more about the history of the country, although perhaps if I am honest, I am more interested in the people and the culture, without reference to another culture that is trying to invade or colonise it. Ethiopia became one of only two African nations to have never been colonised, despite attempts following the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when 14 European countries divided Africa among themselves.

Ethiopia Flag the Shadow King

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

For the culture, the people and their history are so much more than the slim chapters that get all the attention, when power hungry regions and men look for prestige and/or revenge and the media (with its inevitable bias) makes everyone look. And if those nations that invade come out looking bad, or worse humiliated (especially by women), then you can be sure the stories will be buried and/or rewritten so as not to offend the innocent of their own country.

Italy Invades Ethiopia 1935

Ethiopia defeated Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in the nineteenth century (1896), saving them from Italian colonisation, so their subsequent aggressive incursion in 1935, one that provides a framework for this novel, might be seen as revenge or an attempt to boost Italian national prestige by exercising this second attempt to assert control and join their European brothers in having a colony of their own.

The Shadow King Maaza MengisteBut the novel isn’t about politics, it concerns a few players and characters, who we are given glimpses of, in a style that is like a series of snapshots, a narrative that therefore has gaps and not the fluidity of a traditional story, nor enables us to really get to know too well the characters, limited as we are by this kaleidoscopic technique.

A Photo or A Thousand Words

I heard/saw Maaza Mengiste during the (online) Edinburgh BookFest this year and learned that she was indeed aided in her research and imagination by a set of photographs, something that reminded me of On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, an author who also used photographs to aid her storytelling ( a memoir of her mother), however Cumming shares the photographs with the reader and Mengiste  shares two, requiring the words to work even harder for the reader. I found this device here a distraction, not expecting a literary device, I had expected more of a character lead historical narrative, a warning not to create expectations before reading. In the talk she gave, she showed some of the photographs that had inspired some of the narrative, she had surrounded herself with them as she wrote.

A Woman’s Lot & What She is Capable Of

We meet orphaned Hirute, who works as a maid for a husband and wife of nobility, Aster and Kidane, brought into their family due to a promise made to her parents. A fractious relationship exists between the three of them, there is dependence, resentment, attraction, jealousy and comradeship. A heady mix. With the nation at war, and tired of waiting for Kidane to return, the women decide to participate in the fight, an inclination also connected to the gun Hirute was left by her father, one that Kidane took from her, that she is determined to retrieve and use.

Ethiopian Woman The Shadow King Maaza MengisteOne evening they listen to the radio and hear the (now) famous words of Empress Menen of Ethiopia disclosing the aggression to the World Women’s League,  appealing to all world nations:

“We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.

War kills our husbands, our brothers, and our children. It destroys our homes, and scatters our families. At this hour and in such a tragic and sad period, when aggressors are planning to bring a heavy war into our lives, we would like to bring this to the attention of all women through the world, that it is their duty to voice and express solidarity against such acts.”

Women participated in this war, not just an historical fact, but one that Mengiste discovered lay in her own family, (her great-grandmother enlisted to fight). It was a subject few talked about, and one that history books seem to have omitted, to the point where few female veterans remain, whose stories can be told. One can see how easily their experiences are relegated to myth and the author is to be commended for the 10 years of perseverance it took to bring this story to light.

Though she uses her imagination, it is historical fiction after all, this is not a fantasy or adventure, and the role these women took on and the sacrifices and risks they took in doing so, meant they were heroines not in the traditional masculine sense, but that they showed solidarity towards keeping these invaders away and presented an image of provocation and strength, one that no European army, likely had ever seen.

“I realised that the closer I looked at women, the more I began to understand the many different battles that they were fighting; the conflicts were on the battlefields, but they also happened in the military camps. Women had to contend with multi-layered violence; there is fighting as soldiers, but there is fighting as women whose bodies are imagined to be the territories for their compatriots.”

Space is also given to a conflicted soldier in the Italian army, who, while fighting under orders from his own country, learns that his own survival is under threat, when all soldiers are asked to complete a census. Though he states his religion as none, his  name makes him a target of another European aggression going on at that time. He provides a counterpoint to the aggression and his occupation as photographer, a man who sits for hours in contemplation of his subject, often under orders, is a source of both horror and soulful reflection.

Never Admit Defeat, What About Forgiveness?

In an interview, Mengiste tells of a visit to Calabria in the south of Italy for her first book (set in 1974), when a man stood and asked if he could talk to her about 1935; it was a tense and emotional moment from a man asking for forgiveness for what his father had been involved in.

Italy has not talked about this history; it’s still difficult for Italians to comprehend what they did in east Africa. A few people grumbled for him to sit down. But he was visibly shaken and emotional. He told me that his father was a pilot during the war. He said: “My father dropped poison on your people. How do I ask for your forgiveness?” And he started crying.

It was at that moment that I said to myself: “My God, this history is not done, this war that feels distant but is not distant. There’s still the question, How do we bridge this gap between us?”

The Shadow King goes some way towards bridging that gap and opens the way for more to seek answers and ask more questions and to remember that women are not a mere footnote in history, there are thousands of untold stories from the past of their endeavours.

This was a slow moving, challenging read, many may not have the patience required to read it, but I’m glad I persevered.

Maaza Mengiste, Author

was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974. Her family fled the Ethiopian revolution when she was a child a history she explores in her first novel, one I’m looking forward to reading.  A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, named one of the Guardian’s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times.

Further Reading

New York Times Interview : The ‘Detective Work’ Behind a War Novel by Wadzanai Mhute Nov 12, 2020

Guardian Interview: The Language of War is Always Masculine

10 Surprising Facts About Ethiopia