by Julia Kuttner
THE 19TH WIFE, by David Ebershoff
Based on historic events, Mr Ebershoff’s novel contains parallel memoirs set 100 years apart, dealing with the Mormon pioneers and their first charismatic leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and the disillusionment and fall-out visited by their polygamy on their contemporary descendants. Ann Eliza Young, Brigham’s ‘19th’ wife, escaped Utah and her husband’s dictatorship in 1873 and thereafter campaigned vigorously through lectures and print to expose the cruel subjugation of ‘plural wifery’. More than a century later,
Twenty-year old Jordan Scott, excommunicated and dumped by the side of the road with nothing at the age of fourteen by his family’s defiantly polygamous breakaway Mormon sect returns to Mesadale in 2006 because his mother – his father’s 19th wife – is in deep trouble: his father has been shot dead, his mother has been arrested for the murder and the death penalty still applies in Utah.
Mr. Ebershoff is a very skillful writer; the action never flags; his research is painstaking and accurate; he presents his characters in the fairest light and he has written a fascinating historical page-turner where the murderer is not revealed until the very end. Which is exactly as it should be!
THE EARTH HUMS IN B FLAT, by Mari Strachan
In the 50’s, everyone in 12-year old Gwenni’s Welsh village has secrets to which she wants answers: the trick is to be super-watchful, a discreet listener and to have the ability to ask the nonchalant but leading questions - sometimes people will let their guard down enough to satisfy her curiosity as to (1) why her mother seems perpetually irritated by Gwenni’s very presence; (2) why her mother has an intense dislike for Gwenni’s favourite person, her schoolteacher, who is married to the village wastrel, and (3) why, when the wastrel disappears (and everyone says ‘good job!’) her mother appears devastated by this turn of events.
Mari Strachan’s debut novel is a tender and funny evocation of childhood and village life, where no-one had secrets but thought they did. As with all immensely satisfying stories there is a twist to the tale at the end, and Gwenni, that singular, kind and determined little girl, will remain with the reader long after the book is finished.
WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel
Thomas Cromwell: Blacksmith, mercenary, international banker, cloth merchant, lawyer, indispensable assistant to the powerful English clergy – and king’s confidante: at a court full of the powerful and the power-hungry, this layman of uncertain origins came to wield more influence with Henry VIII than all his royal dukes combined.
It was Cromwell who was the main architect in drafting the Reformation laws separating the English church from Rome, enabling the king to claim the wealth of the catholic monasteries and religious houses as his own, and finally abolishing the need for the Pope’s permission for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Brilliant, loyal Cromwell engineered for Henry the king’s heart’s desire: marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Hilary Mantel recreates admirably the pomp, intrigue and hypocrisy of the time and the struggles for European dominance by the rulers of France, Spain and England, but most of all she breathes wonderful life into some of the most famous and notorious characters in history: their stories have been told many times before but seldom so convincingly, or so well. - And it has just been announced that Ms. Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize for 2009 for Wolf Hall.
There can be no greater recommendation.
SHANGHAI GIRLS by Lisa See
Shanghai, the Paris of the East, in 1937 glamorous, notorious and home to Pearl and May Chin, cosseted and pampered daughters of the wealthy owner of a chain of rickshaws. Life is perfect until their father reveals that he has gambled away the family fortune and has sold the girls into arranged marriages to clear his debts. Then the Japanese bomb Shanghai and the ignominy of their union to two strangers, Chinese American brothers, pales into insignificance as the sisters fight for their very lives in their attempts to leave their beloved city and travel to the Great Unknown, the Gold Mountain: America.
Lisa See weaves a fascinating tale of families, natal and adopted, and the inflexible obligations expected of them: love, respect,and above all unshakable loyalty to each other in the face of racism and discrimination, both overt and hidden. She evokes unforgettable images of California in the 40’s and 50’s, liberal and cosmopolitan on one hand; mortally afraid of Communism and the Yellow Peril on the other.
The story ends inconclusively, which surely indicates a sequel: One hopes Lisa See has already embarked on Part 2 – the reader musn’t be left in such suspense!