by Julia Kuttner
Pavel and I, by Dan Vyleta
Berlin, Christmas 1946: the once-proud capital of Hitler’s Reich is vanquished, bombed to smithereens , its inhabitants barely surviving in one of the coldest winters on record, and reduced to dog-eat-dog methods of survival. The narrator of this story recounts how Pavel Richter, supposedly a decommissioned GI and language expert who decided to stay on in the ruined city, becomes unwittingly involved by his best friend in the murder of a mobster who has a secret, information that the British and Russians desperately want. An almost farcical element is introduced by the fact that the mobster is a dwarf; there is a nod to Dickens with the introduction of a cast of street waifs ruled by an Artful Dodger-like character; the arch-villain is florid, torrid, hugely corpulent and most satisfyingly brilliant at crossing his I’s and dotting his T’s, and lastly, Pavel’s eventual love-interest is Sonia, The Whore with the Heart of Gold, terribly used and humiliated by the war, and willing to do anything to survive, like war victims everywhere. Sonia is drawn to Pavel’s old-fashioned aristocratic air, his courtliness and intellectual gifts – he could never kill anyone except as a combat soldier, for any reason at all, least of all in cold blood – or could he? As Vyleta’s wonderful debut novel draws to a close, we realize that Pavel is much more than the sum of his parts, and very different from surface impressions: whose side is he on? Who is giving him orders? The reader, like the characters, is inexorably drawn into the enigma that is Pavel, and what a satisfying, beautifully written mystery it is. Highly recommended.
Half-Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls, long-time journalist and already well-known for her celebrated memoir ‘The Glass Castle’, wanted to write a memoir of her maternal Grandmother, Lily Casey Smith , but Lily turned out to be such a larger-than-life character, so singular and indomitable that writing of her in the third person fell flat on the page; turning her story, all true, into a first-person narrative and therefore a novel, was the only way that Lily could leap satisfyingly off the print and into the reader’s mind and heart. The prose is matter-of-fact, without frills, chronicling Lily’s life from the age of six in the early 1900’s when she helped her father break horses; how her younger brother Buster got the only long-term formal education ‘because he was a boy and he would inherit the ranch’, whilst she and her sister were educated by Dad, who was well-read but had his own radical ideas about politics, government and civilization in general. When she was thirteen she was allowed to board at a mission school for six months, but was sent home because Dad had spent her tuition money on eight Great Danes, from whom he was going to make a killing when he bred them; sadly, his next-door neighbor shot them as soon as they ventured onto his land, thinking they would kill his stock. Lily, naturally, was bitter that her tuition money disappeared so quickly, but was eventually dispatched at the age of fifteen to a tiny settlement in Northern Arizona as its teacher. The First World War had started; able-bodied men were enlisting; women were moving into the factories, so she was offered a job as a relief schoolteacher at Red Lake, five hundred miles from her home, a journey she undertook on horseback without a backward glance. It took her a month, and this reader is still in awe of her accomplishment, written about not as a huge, brave undertaking, but just as a statement of fact: this was how it was ‘back in the day’. In the course of Lily’s life she learned to drive a car, fly a plane, manage a huge ranch in Arizona with her second husband (the first was a bigamous, low-down no-gooder), and led the kind of life that makes us city-slickers quake at the mere thought of the hard work, hardship and privation. She was a woman of huge heart, unshakeable conviction, great humour and rigid opinions, particularly about her daughter’s choice of a husband: ‘You need a steady man. He ain’t steady. What are you going to do for a honeymoon?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – we’ll go where the road takes us.’
‘Well honey, you’re in for a ride.’ And eventually had to wave them off as ‘they took off off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.’
REMARKABLE CREATURES, by Tracy Chevalier
This is a novel, based on factual events and singular women, who dared at the beginning of the 19th century to challenge male domination of science and paleontology, not because they wanted to change the accepted order of things, but because their lives as spinsters made them courageous and different, emboldened by their shared curiosity and awe at the wondrous fossils they uncovered on England’s Southwest coast at Lyme Regis. This is a story of a unique and precious friendship, that of a crossing of class barriers; Elizabeth Philpot, upper class, genteel but comparatively poor – until she meets Mary Anning, ‘a working girl’, doomed to subsist at the bottom of the heap, until her remarkable gift of hunting fossils or ‘curies’ as they were named, brings her success and fame of a kind, but not the happiness she desires. Tracy Chevalier blesses us yet again with another beautifully crafted story in the spirit of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, the prose lucid, clear as a bell, and just as magical. As always, she brings to life with great verve the times and the historical figures of which she writes , and as always, we are reluctant to reach the end of the tale. A beautiful story, superbly written.
As the Earth turns Silver, by Alison Wong
Ms. Wong’s debut novel is a story of morals and prejudice at the start of the 20th century in Wellington, New Zealand; prejudice against ‘the yellow peril’, Chinese immigrants allowed to enter the country to work – but not to bring their families, unless they could pay £100.0.0. poll tax, an enormous sum and virtually impossible to accomplish within any acceptable length of time. It is a story of inflexible moral standards, particularly towards women and what was regarded at that time as ‘respectable’; the fact that one’s husband beat a woman black and blue was to be expected and silently endured. If the husband drank away all the family’s money that was also no cause for complaint: the man was ruler in his own home; the king of his castle. Double standards were the norm. This story exposes the hypocrisy of the times, and recounts with great lyricism and subtlety a forbidden love which must end in tragedy. The author has researched widely and well to recount some of the signal events of the times; events which, jaded even as we are, still have the power to shock us with their savagery. Ms. Wong is a poet and her mastery of the language and the beauty of her prose are to be savoured and enjoyed. A very fine first novel. I look forward to the next.
OLDIES BUT GOODIES.
White Tiger, Red Phoenix, Blue Dragon, Earth to Hell, by Kylie Chan.
These four novels based on Chinese classical mythology will never win any prestigious literary prizes: they are brash, predictably plotted and blood flows in torrents – BUT! (as we know, there’s always a but) - Australian Kylie Chan has hit upon a winning formula, skillfully combining modern kung-fu action with themes of warfare of the most savage kind amongst the ancient Chinese Gods, all recounted by a very exceptional (well, of course!) Australian girl who happens accidentally upon all the Heaven and Hell conflict by applying for a Nanny’s position in a very rich Hong Kong Chinese household. Over the course of the novels, Emma Donohoe becomes imbued with semi-magic powers herself and battles the forces of evil with a fine supporting cast of Gods, demi-Gods, dragons and demons (and I’m here to tell you that the Demon King is pretty hot stuff!) - but even the ‘good’ Gods are quarrelsome, promiscuous and can’t be trusted an inch. There is a fine vein of irreverent, outrageous ocker humour permeating the series, and while we know that the old Kylie is about as serious as Pauline Hanson’s last attempts to change the face of Australian politics, it must be cheerfully admitted that each book is a breathless page-turner. Ms Chan’s novels are FUN.
Anything by John Connolly!!
Much to my irritation (because I don’t like reading things out of sequence) I realized after reading ‘The Lovers’, my introduction to the novels of John Connolly, that this book was the latest in a series, the main protagonist of whom is Private Detective Charlie Parker, a man of dark secrets and huge sorrows; completely fearless, which is just as well as he is a magnet for every kind of evil imaginable. That he manages to vanquish all his enemies (with the aid of some unique supporting characters) is recounted by Connolly in entirely credible fashion: each novel has exactly the right amount of suspense, menace, fear and violence to keep the pages turning at a furious rate. Best of all, Mr. Connolly is a superbly elegant writer, scaring us silly in one chapter, then making us chortle in the next. His one-liners should be memorized and repeated as often as possible. He is a master of the thriller genre; long may he continue to thrill!