Review: The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer

In 1937, Andras Lévi travels from his home in Budapest to Paris to study architecture at the École Spéciale.  He faces a variety of challenges adjusting to the new country and making ends meet, but manages to find a part-time job, make friends of fellow students, and most importantly, fall in love with Klara, an older woman with a secret past.  But their happiness is overshadowed by the growing threat of Nazi Germany, especially since Andras and Klara are both Jewish.  A series of events take Andras and Klara back to Hungary, where Andras is pressed into service not as a soldier, but as a member of a labor corps responsible for digging ditches, felling trees, loading boxcars, and so on.

The first half of The Invisible Bridge takes place primarily in Paris, and serves to develop a rich cast of characters in a setting that is idyllic compared to what they have in store.  Andras is established as a promising young architect; his brother Tibor, a physician.  The brothers meet their future wives, and forge strong bonds with a group of peers.  And then suddenly, new laws affecting Jewish immigrants change everything, and their close-knit group is scattered.  The second half of the book covers the war years in harrowing detail, and it was interesting to read about World War II from a Hungarian perspective.  Hungary was part of the Axis powers allied with Germany and Italy, but this was somewhat by force.  Many of the characters in this book secretly hoped for Germany’s downfall.  Life was one struggle after another:  labor servicemen were subjected to extremely poor conditions as well as physical and emotional abuse.  It wasn’t any easier for those left at home, as they faced food shortages and government corruption.  And communication channels were poor, so people often didn’t know how their loved ones were faring while they were apart.

The Invisible Bridge is a well-paced story of love and hardship, but it’s also a long book (nearly 600 pages), and I lost concentration in the last 100 pages.  Some aspects felt repetitive: Andras leaves for labor service, returns home, and is called up again.  And then he comes home.  And then he is called back.  And … well, you get the idea.  Each time there were new plot developments both in his life and in the war, but I still tired of it.  And yet, there was a lot of excitement in this story, as well as emotion, and I will not soon forget Andras, his family, and the hardships they had to overcome.

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The Sunday Salon Review: The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore

After the 2010 Booker Prize announcement, I rushed out to buy the winner (The Finkler Question), and it looked so lonely in my shopping cart that I picked up a copy of Helen Dunmore’s longlisted novel The Betrayal as well.  I’d recently read — and loved — Dunmore’s earlier book, The Siege, so I had high hopes for its sequel.  It took a few months for The Betrayal to inch up to the top of my TBR pile.  And while it was neither as compelling nor as emotional as The Siege, it’s still a worthwhile read.  My review follows.

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In 1952, Anna and Andrei have survived the hardships of World War II and are now making their living in Leningrad.  Andrei is a doctor, Anna is a childcare provider, and together they provide for Anna’s 16-year-old brother Kolya.  They are content and comfortable; sometimes they actually forget the cold and hunger experienced during the siege of Leningrad in 1941.  But life under Stalin presents new challenges that often violate basic human rights.

Andrei’s colleague Russov involves him in the case of a boy, son of secret police officer Volkov.  The boy’s illness is far outside Andrei’s specialty, but the boy takes a liking to Andrei who soon finds himself coordinating all aspects of his care.  The hospital staff know that if anything goes wrong, Volkov will blame them.  And things do go wrong.  Suddenly Andrei, Anna, and Kolya are in danger, and don’t know who they can trust.  The family becomes separated, with each member fighting for survival.

While The Betrayal stands on its own, reading the The Siege first provides a better understanding of the emotional bonds and shared history between the three main characters.  I don’t think I would have cared for them as much had I not “lived” through the siege with them.  And while the tension in this novel is palpable, I was hoping for a bit more suspense and intrigue.  Still, I enjoyed this book and would recommend reading it along with The Siege.

Other reviews:

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Review: The Colour, by Rose Tremain

In 1864, Joseph Blackstone, his new wife Harriet, and his mother Lilian emigrated from England to New Zealand in search of a better life. Lilian, recently widowed, pines for her former lifestyle and resents having to live on their remote farm.  But at the same time, she also hopes to rise above her station, and is disappointed to encounter familiar class barriers in New Zealand:

The familiar feeling of being snubbed — a feeling she’d thought belonged only to England, where the disdain of the upper classes infected every encounter — made Lilian want to weep, or, worse, give Dorothy Orchard a vicious swipe across her badly coiffed head. Lilian was particularly vexed by the knowledge that she never understood exactly how people like Dorothy Orchard achieved their instantaneous mastery over others outside their class.  It happened before you noticed it, like a perfectly executed card trick.  (p. 78)

Joseph is arrogant and stubborn, refusing to listen to advice from the locals on where to build his house, and what materials to use.  Joseph and Harriet have an odd relationship.  Joseph has a secret in his past, and married for all the wrong reasons.  It’s not clear what they see in one another, and it doesn’t take long for Harriet to realize she will never truly love Joseph:

For day by day, she kept secret from him her own lovelessness.  It piled up in her. At times, it was not merely lack of love that she felt; it was hatred of the blackest kind. And though she struggled to conceal it from him, perhaps she succeeded no better than he did with his blatant heaps of earth? In the nights, she often awoke at first light to see him staring at her, his eye close to hers, his fists clenched around the sheets. Did he know that she did not love him? Did he understand all too clearly that she loved the wilderness he had brought her to, but not him? (p. 95)

Yet both Harriet and Lilian are committed to making their farm a success, even after Joseph finds gold in a nearby creek and decides to join the hundreds of other men seeking their fortunes in New Zealand’s gold rush.  Circumstances eventually force Harriet to go off on her own, in search of Joseph.

The story is told from alternating points of view with chapters narrated by Harriet, Joseph, and a couple of other characters who weave nicely into the storyline.  Joseph turns out to be an arrogant and hapless loner, unable to relate to women and desperate to please his mother by accumulating wealth.  Harriet is strong and independent, undaunted by Joseph’s failings and refusing to bow to societal expectations of women.  It is only through Harriet’s intelligence that the couple have any chance of finding gold and making something of their lives together.

But that’s only part of this story; Rose Tremain has more to say than “just” historical drama laced with love.  She also shows how the quest for gold took its toll on the land and destroyed both individuals and communities.  Those who are untouched by greed and continued leading simple lives were by far the happiest and, one could argue, the most successful.

Review: Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

In 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were brutally murdered at their home in Kingston, Ontario.  Two servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were tried and convicted.  McDermott was sentenced to death, but Grace’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.  In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood uses scant historical evidence, and the character of young Dr. Simon Jordan, to tell Grace’s story.

Dr. Jordan is somewhat of a specialist in mental illness, and in 1859 is granted permission to conduct a series of interviews with Grace at the penitentiary.  He hopes to learn her side of the story, not just what her attorney told her to say at trial.  But Grace has blocked all memories associated with the murders, and uncovering the truth is a long process requiring much patience.  Jordan visits Grace nearly every day, and she recounts her life story from early childhood in Ireland all the way up to the murders.

Very early on, I fell into reading Alias Grace as I would any murder mystery.  I forgot it was historical fiction, and began reading between the lines, searching for red herrings and expecting surprise plot twists.  But the fascinating aspects of this tale are actually due to its basis in historical fact.  In the 1840s, the field of mental illness was going through tremendous change, with many new theories and treatment methods.  Many psychological conditions were simply not well understood.  And Grace herself was a victim of society’s prevailing attitudes toward women.  Because she was attractive, some thought she must be the mastermind behind the murders.  Others claimed her youth made her an unwilling victim.  Margaret Atwood brings out another side of Grace, that of a strong independent woman whose psychological reaction to trauma fundamentally changed the course of her life.

Review: Music & Silence, by Rose Tremain

In Music and Silence, Rose Tremain uses a fictional character to explore the life of King Christian IV of Denmark.  Peter Claire leaves England for Copenhagen in 1629, to play his lute in the king’s orchestra.  The king is in his 50s, and married to his second wife, Kirsten Munk.  She has borne him 12 children, and is now refusing his advances (can you blame her?).  Peter falls in love with Emilia Tilsen, one of Kirsten’s women.  Through these four characters, Tremain paints a vivid picture of Danish life nearly four hundred years ago.

The book started off promising.  The story is presented from alternating points of view:  third-person narratives about Christian, Peter, or Emilia are interspersed with “excerpts” from Kirsten’s personal papers.  Christian is portrayed as a hard-drinking and not very effective leader, struggling to deal with Denmark’s economic woes.  He has grand dreams but fails to execute. Tremain’s prose reminds us how difficult day-to-day existence really was.  Communication channels were slow; sometimes mail was not delivered because it went down in a sinking ship.  Illness was rampant, and ailments we consider trivial today, could kill in those times.

But about halfway through this book my interest began to flag, for two reasons:

  • There were too many subplots.  It felt like Tremain started out to write a story of King Christian & Kirsten, as seen through the eyes of Peter & Emilia, but quickly ran out of material.  So she introduced a huge cast of characters with their own ancillary stories: the musicians in the orchestra, Emilia’s family in Jutland, Christian’s wealthy mother, Kirsten’s conniving mother, Christian’s boyhood friend Bror, Peter’s former mistress, Peter’s sister and her fiancé, a failed mining expedition and its aftermath, and on and on and on …  Some of these subplots contributed significantly to the larger story, others seemed like filler.
  • The female characters were little more than objects.  This began with Kirsten, who as the classic self-centered, conniving, promiscuous bitch transformed this novel from historical fiction to soap opera.  Kirsten repeatedly used her body to get what she wanted.  If she were the only one, I could have accepted it.  But too many of the women were portrayed in this way, from Peter’s former mistress to Emilia’s stepmother.  And then Emilia herself was a milquetoast, caring for animals and smiling demurely as she floated around in some kind of dream world.  I know there is little written history of women during this time period, but I’ve read other works of historical fiction that imagine their lives in much more creative ways.

I’ve enjoyed several other books by Rose Tremain, but Music and Silence was just OK.

Review: Something to Answer for, by P.H. Newby

Something to Answer For takes place during the 1956 Suez Crisis.  This was one of those typically complicated political tangles, and one I knew little about.  The crisis involved military action by the British and French, in response to Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (which in itself was a response to American actions taken when Egypt recognized the People’s Republic of China … and on and on …).

Jack Townrow walks into the middle of all this when his friend Elie Khoury’s widow writes to him requesting help to investigate her husband’s death and settle his affairs.  Against his better judgment he travels to Egypt.  En route he meets a Jewish man who accuses Townrow — or, rather, the British — of allowing the Holocaust to happen.  Townrow is aghast, certain the British government would have prevented genocide if they had known about it.  He is equally certain the British can only do good in Egypt.

Soon after his arrival, Townrow is attacked and forgets his identity, his nationality, and many other details.  He still tries hard to help Mrs. Khoury, although he questions whether Elie is really dead and sometimes goes off in search of him.  He falls for a young woman named Leah, but  evil and suspicion lurk around every corner, and it’s difficult for Townrow — and the reader — to tell who the “good guys” really are.

Townrow’s character appears to be a metaphor for the British Empire losing its colonial power, and I’m sure the events were still fresh in readers’ minds when this book was published in 1968.  But the metaphor didn’t work for me, I found the plot a bit surreal, and the book very difficult to follow.  It just wasn’t my thing.

Review: Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

In May, 2010 J.G. Farrell’s Troubles won the “Lost Man Booker Prize.” The award brought renewed attention to this classic, first published in 1970.  I knew the novel was set around 1920, and dealt with the war between Sinn Fein/I.R.A. and British occupational forces in Ireland.  I enjoy historical fiction, and I read several glowing reviews, but unfortunately this book failed to live up to my expectations.

The story begins when Major Brendan Archer, recently discharged from the British army, travels to Ireland to reunite with his fiancee, Angela, whose father Edward owns The Majestic, a huge, decrepit hotel.  The Major isn’t quite sure how he became engaged to Angela, but all of her letters to him imply a commitment was made.  However, on arrival at The Majestic, Angela behaves strangely towards him, and is soon taken ill and confined to bed.  Meanwhile, Edward is attracted to Sarah Devlin, a young woman from town.  She is an obnoxious attention-seeker, and I never understood what he saw in her.  Later, Edward’s twin daughters Faith and Charity arrive on the scene.  Like most of the characters in Troubles, they are caricatures, but I also found them distasteful.

The book is satirical, and infused with dry wit which I really enjoyed:

They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere.  The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings. (p. 7)

The story is long and sprawling, with several subplots and a number of fantastical events.  I could appreciate The Majestic as a metaphor for the decline of Empire, and the residents as stereotypes of the Anglo-Irish privileged classes.  But late in the novel there were several acts of senseless cruelty to animals, all described in the same “witty” style as the above quote, and that was the turning point in my opinion of this novel.  There was something about Troubles that appealed to me (I did, after all, read all 459 pages), and other aspects reminded me of magical realism, a genre I do not care for.

Many of my fellow readers have loved this book, but for some reason it just wasn’t for me.