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[737] Aztec – Gary Jennings

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” As we believed in those days, a hero slain in the service of a mighty lord or sacrificed in homage to a high god was assured of a life everlasting in the most resplendent of afterworlds, where he would be rewarded and regaled with bliss throughout eternity. And now Christianity tells us that we all may hope for an afterlife in a similarly splendid Heaven. But consider. Even the most heroic of heroes dying in the most honorable cause, even the most devout Christian martyr dying in the certainty of reaching Heaven, he will never again know the caress of this world’s moonlight dappling his face as he walks beneath this world’s rustling cypress trees. A trifling pleasure–so small, so simple, so ordinary–but never to be known again. “

Aztec is a tome that takes me four months to read (I started on Jan 1, 2015). Set in 1529 when the king of Spain wants an account of the customs, traditions, and people of the ancient civilization in Mexico that is known as the New Spain. The narrator is also the protagonist, a near-sighted Aztec scribe named Mixtli, and the book chronicles his life through to the Spanish conquest, framed as a final confession to a Spanish bishop. A great deal happens. There’s enough facts and history of the Aztec to counterbalance the some really quite sickening and salacious details. There’s the sense of wonder, the lavish details of the landscape, the description of native civilization. Mixtli recalled how a child is raised. Parents would make every effort to discourage any impurities or awakening sexual appetites. But the cruel disciplinary measure his mother meted out on his sister had exactly the contrary effect. She later sank so low being “astraddle on the road.” She even attempted incest but I would spare the details. Weird and indulgent sex is not an uncommon occurrence in this novel.

The adventures often culminate in excessive violence and sexual depravity. In another episode, Mixtli’s friend suffers an accident and has to undergo complete castration, balls and all, with only a hole left for the urethra. Later on, Mixtli and his friend are alone in the desert, an obvious opportunity for “a good time.” However, Mixtli uses his friend’s urethra as the nearest available orifice. To say the least, the sins of Aztec against the reader would make a lengthy list.

While it’s difficult to admit and/or believe, there might be fairly good book lurking under all the grossness and ridiculousness. Jennings’s portrayal of Aztec culture is actually sensitive. Discussion of Aztec civilization usually is narrowed to human sacrifice in English scholarship. Jennings corrects this insularity and presents other aspects in a positive light: law, trade, government, and the like. Human sacrifice is just one of them. Jennings also emphasizes on the different in religion between the Indians and the new white contemporary.

At 1038 pages, the book is grossly overwritten, unless reader enjoys that roller coaster ride of elevating to some transcending epic and plummeting down to total farce and depravity, and then up and down again. The numerous, excited engorged accounts of atrocity and bloodshed, the overripe sex scenes that become almost ridiculous in their frequency and comically graphic, and bawdy comedies of manner—all become unbearably painful. It’s branded as historical fiction, but really is no more than a chronicle of weird and depraved sex pit against an ancient civilization. This book is it for me for this series.

1038 pp. Forge Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[728] Claude and Camille – Stephanie Cowell

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” When will people ever see that good art is living and real, intimate, and grand? That real beauty is in ordinary life? Not in a place built to the great grandeur of France and her immortal emperor, I’m afraid. ” (Part 2, p.73)

Claude and Camille is a diverting fiction representation of the Impressionist maverick Claude Monet and his first wife, who died at the age of 32. The bulk of the book is about the relationship between the struggling young painter and Camille Doncieux. Though Monet had glimpsed Camille as a child, briefly, at the train station on his way to army conscript, it isn’t until a chance encounter in her uncle’s bookshop in Paris that the artist and his muse finally meet. Both are in defiance of their family’s wishes for them to take up the life of a tradesman and society lady, respectively.

Why they all had to paint, why they must paint. No one discussed what it was like when they no longer wanted to do it, when the intimacy of it was gone and left you with nothing . . . This thing I loved so has become nothing for me but a canvas worth selling. (Part 4, p.189)

Because of Monet’s poverty, Camille’s disapproving parents, and the existence of a proper fiance, their courtship is difficult, even after Monet receives acclaim for The Woman in the Green Dress, a portrait of Camille accepted into the famous Salon of French Artists. Despite these obstacles, Camille commits to the artist. Her imminent pregnancy is a difficult situation given that Monet’s critical acclaim has not brought financial rewards, at least not until after the war with Prussia, during which they fled to London. Monet’s obsessive passion and erratic income put a lot of strain on his marriage; and Camille, often given to whims, slowly realizes with dismay what she has given up by marrying Monet, who in turn struggles to keep her happy while trying to make a living through his art.

Over the past few years they also had been drifting into their old habit of not telling each other their difficulties, and slowly the unspoken words lay within him until sometimes the things he wanted to say got trapped between the things he did not. (Part 6, p.261)

As the tight implies, the book focuses more on Monet’s private life than his career. It’s difficult to write with rising interest in a narrative full of ups and downs of a relationship. But the strain is relieved by the description of life in late 19th century Paris, rendered in great detail, in the comradeship between Monet and his group of fellow Impressionists—Bazille, Renoir, Pissarro, Manet. They support one other ceaselessly, not only financially but emotionally as well. When Cowell does delve in the paintings, the description is impeccable, if not with the actual tools and instruction, the techniques and explanations of the new ideas on color and light. It’s a lighter book if you want to know about Monet’s life.

340 pp. Broadway Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[715] A Fearsome Doubt – Charles Todd

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” We looked at the wine, and not the laudanum. We looked for any connection with victims, and there was none. We looked for opportunity, and didn’t see how it could be accomplished. We told ourselves it was the darkness that mattered—we told ourselves it was the road—we believed it had to do with men who’d fought together. And in the end it was none of these things. It all came back to dying . . . (Ch.31, p.349)

The opening premise of A Fearsome Doubt is intriguing: Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, returning from the war, is hounded by the widow whose husband he had incriminated and sent to the gallows. The man, named Ben Shadow, was found guilty of smothering old ladies to death. Bent on clearing her husband’s name and removing family’s stigmata, Nell Shaw presents him with what she says is evidence that must clear her husband.

But before he can review Shaw case, Rutledge is dispatched to Kent where former soldiers who lost a limb in the war are being killed, one by one, with overdoses of laudanum. Then, to complicate the matter, a German officer on a stolen passport whom Rutledge thought dead turns up in Kent. He makes a tangle of his life looking for a lost family heirloom since he was once taken captive in Kent. Guilty or not of the multiple murders, Rutledge makes the disturbing discovery that the attractive widow of his friend, Richard Mayhew, who was killed in the war, seems to be infatuated with this new man.

Yet he’d uncovered other possible motives now. It was Pandora’s box, an overturned case where everything that spilled out pointed accusing fingers at him for not seeing them before . . . (Ch.16, p.157)

The characters are very well-drawn, especially Ian Rutledge, who has been shell-shocked in the war and haunted by a man whom he forced to execute. Throughout the novel he faces the possibility that he may have sent an innocent man to his grave, before his stint in the war. Story-wise A Fearsome Doubt is lackluster, disjointed and constipated. The mystery solutions seem totally disconnected from the well-drawn characters and make little sense. Not only is the author stingy with information that there is no way the reader can figure out the culprit, the author also seems to have idea what to do with all the red herrings and unnecessary information. It’s a very slow read and the resolution is disappointing.

356 pp. Bantam. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[694] The Indian Clerk – David Leavitt

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” Human situations, on the other hand, are complex and multiform. To understand them you must take into account not only misunderstandings, occasions, circumstances, but the mystery of human nature, which is as rife with contradictions as the foundational landscape of mathematics. ” (Part 9, p.447)

I am not sure exactly what “fictive biography” is why it matters, but The Indian Clerk, like many novels in the genre of historical fiction, employs real characters to construct a story that shines light on the immense gulf that divides us culturally, intellectually, and emotionally. The book is dextrously wrought and deviously researched. The Indian clerk in the title is Srinivasa Ramanujan, the celebrated mathematics genius who fetched up at Trinity College, Cambridge, six months before the start of the first world war. Although a fair amount of the narrative is written in the third person, the author’s proxy is Ramanujan’s sponsor, a leading figure in mathematics at the time, H.H. Hardy, who receives the original letter from the Madras shipping clerk and who, with his colleague Littlewood, makes arrangements for Ramanujan’s arrival. The self-taught maverick, rejected by his own society, is trying to prove Riemann hypothesis, a formula for calculating the number of prime numbers. But interspersed with the prodigy’s mathematical feat and life in Cambridge are great issues, focused and rooted in on the human front that makes this novel a gem.

God had nothing to do with it. Proof was what connected you to the truth. (Part 1, p.33)

The Indian Clerk is a study of differences, of oppositions, of human kindness. Hardy and Ramanujan are completely different people. One from west and the other east. Imperial homeland and infiltrating colony. God-disdaining atheist and a Hindu goddess-relying observer. Mathematics is what draws Ramanujan away from the social awkwardness conjoins him with Hardy. Despite his genius, he remains a studiously enigmatic presence in the book, uttering only conventional pleasantries and suffering repercussions of the intolerable situation at home, between his tyrant mother and recalcitrant wife by arranged marriage.

And so when the Hindu adheres to certain prohibitions and strictures for the sake of propriety and decorum, rather than because he accepts the doctrines of his religion as literally true, he is not acting as a hypocrite . . . (Part 4, p.202)

The interaction between Hardy and Ramanujan is on center stage, but the many peripheral characters give the book its social texture and periodical background. Many aspects of the book are very nuanced: the misanthropic, homosexual Hardy’s dealings with his bluetstocking sister Gertrude, his membership in the secret society of which many members are gay, the insularity that the math contest embodies, the don’s wife Alice Neville’s secret passion for Rmanujan, Littlewood’s affair with Ann Chase who would not divorce her husband, and Bertrand Russell’s loss of college fellowship for opposing the war, and a visit by D.H. Lawrence who offers grim opinion on marriage,

The fictionalized account is like a fairy tale in which a Westerner recognizes an undiscovered talent and seeks to unearth and display his luster. But at heart it’s revealing the unlikely but deep friendship of two men and their struggles, rooted in their upbringing and inveterate traditions.

485 pp. Bloomsbury. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Anne Boleyn

Hilary Mantel’s Tudor Series has piqued my interest in the historical period. Loads of books have been written about Anne Boleyn and the period between her rise and her beheading at London Tower. I have enjoyed Mantel because she tells the story in the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the Master Secretary to King Henry VIII. He helped the king annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, implement regal supremacy, and make Anne Boleyn queen. Anne was not popular with the people of England. They were upset to learn that at the Christmas celebrations of 1529, Anne was given precedence over the Duchesses of Norfolk and Suffolk, the latter of which was the King’s own sister, Mary.

On the first day of September 1532, she was created Marquess of Pembroke, a title she held in her own right. In October, she held a position of honor at meetings between Henry and the French King in Calais. Sometime near the end of 1532, Anne finally gave way and by December she was pregnant. To avoid any questions of the legitimacy of the child, Henry was forced into action. Sometime near St. Paul’s Day (January 25) 1533, Anne and Henry were secretly married. Although the King’s marriage to Katherine was not dissolved, in the King’s mind it had never existed in the first place, so he was free to marry whomever he wanted. On May 23, the Archbishop officially proclaimed that the marriage of Henry and Katherine was invalid. This makes up the content of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Plans for Anne’s coronation began. In preparation, she had been brought by water from Greenwich to the Tower of London dressed in cloth of gold. The barges following her were said to stretch for four miles down the Thames. On the 1st of June, she left the Tower in procession to Westminster Abbey, where she became a crowned and anointed Queen in a ceremony led by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

By August, preparations were being made for the birth of Anne’s child, which was sure to be a boy. But she gave birth to Princess Elizabeth, whose christening service was scaled down, but still a pleasant affair. The princess’ white christening robes can currently be seen on display at Sudeley Castle in England. Anne now knew that it was imperative that she produce a son. By January of 1534, she was pregnant again, but the child was either miscarried or stillborn. In 1535, she became pregnant again but miscarried by the end of January. The child was reported to have been a boy. The Queen was quite upset, and blamed the miscarriage on her state of mind after hearing that Henry had taken a fall in jousting. She had to have known at this point that her failure to produce a living male heir was a threat to her own life, especially since the King’s fancy for one of her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, began to grow. This is the gist of the second book, Bring Up the Bodies.

Bring Up the Bodies focuses on Cromwell’s careful orchestration to overthrow Anne. Anne’s enemies at court began to plot against her using the King’s attentions to Jane Seymour as the catalyst for action. Cromwell began to move in action to bring down the Queen. He persuaded the King to sign a document calling for an investigation that would possibly result in charges of treason. Anne’s musician and friend for several years, Mark Smeaton, was arrested and probably tortured into making ‘revelations’ about the Queen. Next, Sir Henry Norris was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. Then the Queen’s own brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford was arrested.

On May 2, the Queen herself was arrested at Greenwich and was informed of the charges against her: adultery, incest and plotting to murder the King. She was then taken to the Tower by barge along the same path she had traveled to prepare for her coronation just three years earlier. In fact, she was lodged in the same rooms she had held on that occasion. There were several more arrests. Sir Francis Weston and William Brereton were charged with adultery with the Queen. Sir Thomas Wyatt was also arrested, but later released. They were put on trial with Smeaton and Norris at Westminster Hall on May 12, 1536. The men were not allowed to defend themselves, as was the case in charges of treason. They were found guilty and received the required punishment: they were to be hanged at Tyburn, cut down while still living and then disemboweled and quartered.

Anne Boleyn was still executed after his marriage to King Henry VIII was declared invalid. On her scaffold, she made her last speech (spelling modernized):

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.

I want to say many books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been written about her during her very short life of about 32 years. Not all of them are historically authentic. The Other Boleyn Girl is page-turning but very inaccurate. It portraits Anne as a shewolf. The Most Happy by Charlotte St George portrays Anne being a more likeable person. In this novel Anne is very reluctant to Henry VIII’s attentions and eventual proposal and is also shown to have enjoyed an unfulfilled, tragic love story with Henry Norris. Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir. It is very good for anyone who is looking for an definitive non-fiction account of Anne’s last few months leading up to her execution.

[689] Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

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” Anne, it appears, was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe. ” (Part Two, II p.383)

Bring Up the Bodies picks up what was left off in Wolf Hall, in which Thomas Cromwell, secretary to the king, helped erase his queen, Katherine of Aragon, cancel his inconvenient daughters and edit those chapters in the narrative which were getting tedious. Working diligently on Henry’s divorce both in the courts and politically behind the scenes, Cromwell brings before the Parliament a number of acts that recognize the king as the head of the church, thus finalizing the break with Rome.

Now at 50, Cromwell wields so much power that affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ears, and all parchments pertaining to state business are pushed across his desk. He only has privacy in his dreams as he is always under the obligations of a servant and an official.

Cromwell wonders exactly how much you’d have to leave on the table for Anne. She’s cost Henry his honour, his peace of mind. To him, Cromwell, she is just another trader. He admires the way she’d laid out her goods. He personally doesn’t want to buy; but there are customers enough. (Part Two, I p.207)

It’s at Wolf Hall in 1536 that the king encounters Jane Seymour, who to Henry represents a source of future sons, as Anne Boleyn has yet to give him a heir. He also suspects whether she had been debauched before being queen. The king wonders if there is some flaw in his marriage to Anne Boleyn, some impediment, something displeasing to God. Cromwell, having heard these concerns all along, is ordered to conclude the matter of Anne Boleyn, and to do it swiftly. The subject of Bring Up the Bodies concerns the downfall of Anne Boleyn, whose flaw is infidelity and the guilty men, though “perhaps not guilty as charged,” are Mark Smeaton, a musician, Henry Norris, the chief of king’s privy chamber, the aristocrats Francis Weston and William Brereton, and the Queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.

No one need contrive at her ruin. No is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old. (Part Two, II p.309)

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Anne Boleyn is beheaded. While it is in the nature of historical fiction that one knows what happens next, the genius of Bring Up the Bodies is that Thomas Cromwell, opaque, labyrinthine and vengeful, despite controlling the fates of so many, doesn’t know the outcome of these events that are narrated through his consciousness. On top of his acumen and perspicacity, Mantel suggests that it’s Cromwell’s origins, together with his almost total absence of friends and family that allows him to play the role he does. He has nothing to lose. This is how he can join with Anne Boleyn’s enemies to overthrow her. The ambiguous Cromwell fits well with Mantel’s agenda, because someone who is too good or too evil does not fit into the intricacy of the plot, as there are hordes of people lurking around in Henry’s court, all of them on the make or trying to sidestep the axe. This book explores the nature of the border between truth and lies. This border is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumor, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales.

409 pp. Fourth State London. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[686] A Dangerous Mourning – Anne Perry

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” And you are at a disadvantage that you can never observe them except under the most artificial of circumstances. How can you possibly ask them the questions you really wish, when they are so forewarned by your mere presence that all their answers are guarded and designed to protect? You can only hope their lies become so convoluted as to trap some truth. ” (Ch.5, p.129)

In this second William Monk crime mystery, murder in an aristocratic London household pits the inspector against the Victorian sense of propriety, a bootlicking superior who just wants to close the case, and a family’s fierce determination to protect its reputation. Sir Basil Moidore’s widowed daughter, Octavia Haslett, was found stabbed in her bedroom. At first it was presumed an intruder had disturbed her during the night and murdered her. Monk is able to prove that there was no outside intruder. Suspicion now descends on the numerous servants and the resident family, who all harbor different opinions and gripe but are tied inextricably to Sir Basil and the family’s status.

She was convinced Lady Beatrice knew something, and every day that passed in silence was adding to the danger that it might never be discovered but that the whole household would close in on itself in corroding suspicion and concealed accusations. And would her silence be enough to protect her indefinitely from the murderer? (Ch.6, p.151)

In the event of a closed-door mystery, knowing no one would speak the whole truth, and nobody would override the wishes of Sir Basil who is the sole provider, Monk covertly arranges to introduce Hester Latterly, the nurse who served in Crimea, as a nurse in the Moidore house to care for the distressed Lady Beatrice Moidore. Hester quickly discerns that the Moidore is no ordinary household. The difference of opinion and the quarrels, which seem such trivial nastiness, had been so deep they had led to a violent and treacherous death. Arguments betray deep-rooted resentment built over the years. Hierarchy and social stratification have also singled out a disliked footman, who entertains ambition beyond his station, to be a scapegoat just out of convenience. Monk refuses to arrest this footman because he doesn’t believe him guilt. Although a gross miscarriage of justice occurs, Monk and Hester persist in pressing the case to its chilling and shocking conclusion.

Someone in my own family murdered my daughter. You see, they all lied. Octavia wasn’t as they said, and the idea of Percival taking such a liberty, or even imagining he could, is ridiculous. (Ch.10, p.293)

Perry really Victorian age into its rightful perspective by pitting the murder mystery against the struggle between upstairs and downstairs, between the elites and their servants. Servants are as convenient a crime suspect as they are victims of amorous intentions—all because of their lower social class. To the upper class it’s absurd for a lady to be in rivalry with a maid for the love of a footman. All these period details and psyche are used to set up the story and to create conflicts. The book itself is masterly layered and plotted. From the beginning, it’s clear that the Moidore is mostly concerned with hushing the scandal and finding a guilty party from among the staff as soon as possible, the ending still comes as a huge shock. It’s the classic case of how far people would bend the truth to bring about what they see as justice.

345 pp. Ballantine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[685] The Face of a Stranger – Anne Perry

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” But in the death of Grey there was quite different passion, something intimate, a bond of hatred between the killer and the killed . . . Grey’s flat oppressed him and he could never free his mind from the violence that had happened there. It was not the blood, or even the death that clug to him, but the hate. ” (Ch.5, p.120)

William Monk Mystery #1

The first book of the William Monk mystery series has a brilliant cold opening: the title detective is not introduced like Holmes or Peter Wimsey, with a full set of eccentricities and inhuman perspicacity, but as a completely black slate—he has total amnesia. William Monk wakes up in a hospital following a near-fatal carriage accident, with no recollection of his life or even an idea of his identity. After a few weeks of recovery, he returns to work to tackle a grisly murder, of Joscelin Grey, the youngest son of Shelburne House, who had been brutally beaten to death in his London flat. The family insists on the culprit being a maniac or a hooligan who has no connection to high society, for a gentleman of unusual charm with no vices and weaknesses should not be a target of murder.

He had been there, inside Grey’s flat; it was incontrovertible. But he had not followed Grey; he had gone afterwards, independently, knowing where to find him. So he had Grey, known where he lived. (Ch.11, p.282)

Monk’s amnesia complicates the story and adds to the intrigue. He tries to cover up his loss of memory while investigating purely on instinct and intelligence—all from scratch. He discovers that previously, before his carriage accident, he has been embroiled in the case of Latterly, who committed suicide out of shame after a failed investment in a dubious business enterprise. Hester Latterly, the victim’s daughter, is an intelligent and independent woman who had been a nurse in the Crimea. She finds herself continually frustrated by the incompetence and stupidity of those in power, who in the comfort of homes have the slightest idea of reality. She is strong-willed and not afraid to speak her mind, thus making her the partner in solving the crime, even though she and Monk lock horns the very first time they meet.

I do not care a great deal for charm. But it always seems chameleon to me, and I cannot be sure what color the animal underneath might be really.

The book is told from Monk’s perspective and naturally, he has to battle with this loss of memory and often back-tracks his investigation. As he digs through the victim’s social circles and financial liaisons, he comes to unveil corruption, treachery, and deception that entangle Hester’s family and the Grey family. The third-person narrative style allows the author to jump over to what appears to be a completely unrelated story with a thoroughly likable heroine in a different hierarchy of society and follow that story until the two plots slowly, and seamlessly, with surprises galore, merge. Perry’s characters are complex, flawed, and authentic. She doesn’t spare the squalor of the Victorian age, nor waste any opportunity to lambaste on the hypocrites who claim to be of genteel rearing but whose endeavors are as pathetic and treacherous as those in the underworld league of fraud and vices.

345 pp. Ballatine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[676] Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

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” The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy. ” (Part I, Ch.5, p.123)

Sarah Waters’s debut novel is one that plays safe by following a conventional plot that begins in 1888. Tipping the Velvet focuses solely on homosexuality in fin de siècle England. In the nutshell, it’s an exuberant, lusty novel about a lesbian adventuress, at the mercy of fate, drifting through the underworld of Victorian London.

In the 1890s, the unassuming daughter of an oyster farmer in Whitstable, Nancy Astley attends the music hall performances, where she first falls in love with Kitty Butler, a comedy male impersonator at the show. That sarah has carefully selected her heroine’s background is both smart and strategic, for Waters never flinches in depicting Nancy’s serial encounters with sensitive body parts with allusions and innuendos pertaining to oysters.

After all, there are moments in our lives that change us, that discontent us with our pasts and offer us new futures. That night at the Canterbury Palace, when Kitty had cast her rose at me, and sent my admiration for her tumbling over into love—that had been one such moment. (Part II, Ch.10, p.250)

But of course, apropos of such conventional plot, Nancy wears her heart on her sleeves too easily. From performing duo to lovers, she is smitten. But Kitty cannot afford to lose her career—he chooses to protect her reputation by escaping into marriage to a man, and the abandoned Nancy, victim of gross betrayal by her only true love, finds work posing as a male street prostitute (or “a renter”) and undergoing undreamed-of sexual permutations and indignities as the kept mistress/boy toy of lustful rich widow Diana Lethaby.

To think of all the people you have known—and yet you have no friends. (Part III, Ch.18, p.430)

Waters’s debut is indeed entertaining, full of conflicting feelings—between the desperate pleasures to which Nancy’s drawn and her equally strong desire to become a regular girl. It brings out the universal theme in LGBT literature that one desires to be loved for what and who he/she is. One minor critique is waters’s hastening attempt to fit Nancy into all the different subsections of the homosexual population, for the Nancy reader gets to know in each section of the novel seems like a different person. But that said, I still find the circumstances by which Nancy finally finds true love are unpredictable and moving. Her search for identity and love is a raucous and passionate odyssey.

472 pp. Riverhead Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Overdue

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“—and there, on the table under her bedroom window, lies the voice that has set her dreaming again. Frangments of a life lived a long, long time ago. Across a hundred years the woman’s voice speaks to her–so clearly that she cannot believe it is not possible to pick up her pen and answer.”

A novel begins in midsentence intimidates me. It’s the telltale sign of a multi-narrative story that will unfold obliquely. Maybe this is why I have put The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif off for a long time. It was shortlisted for Booker prize in 1999 (the winner that year went to Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee). It’s one of those books in which a story unfolds within another story. Although a key part of the novel’s maturity is its ability to face up squarely to both politics and love, the structure of the book takes some patience getting used to. It’s like hearing a story from six degree of separation, with snippets and fragments of details supplemented later. Indeed the history and mystery are encountered piecemeal by the reader, who is to fit together the intersecting stories at the same pace as the characters. The narrative voice switches constantly between Anna’s journal (a century ago), Sharif’s sister’s journal (in the present), Amal’s inner musings or a simple third person narrator. This inconsistency marks the pace of the book. In spite of this constant shift in voices, I find The Map of Love very accessible. Some parts are harder to read because of the Arabic expressions; and the book’s richness of detail calls for a slower more attentive pace. Written in English by an Egyptian-born writer, this intricately plotted novel is set in the present and deeply immersed in the past. It is both a history lesson and a heart-racing romance that walks the fine line between an “orientalist” perspective and an attitude that represents Egyptians and their culture from their own point of view.

I’m indebted to the Egyptian gentleman who recommended this book to me while we were at breakfast at the hotel this morning. He saw that I was reading Borges and asked if I might be interested in reading something written an Egyptian. See how serendipitously books find the readers?