The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon It is the year 343BC and Aristotle, revered student of Plato’s academy, superb logician, philosopher and teacher, has arrived in Pella, capital of the northern Greek city state of Macedon to greet and pass on messages to his old childhood friend and liege lord Phillip, king of Macedon. Aristotle has recently married and is anxious to bring his new (and very young) wife Pythia to Athens, the cultural centre of the universe; he frets that she will tire of him before their marriage has properly begun – he feels he must beguile and bribe her with new experiences and fine things in order to keep her with him. Unfortunately for Aristotle, Phillip ‘requires’ him to stay on to be tutor to his 13 year-old son Alexander, and ‘no’ is not an acceptable answer. On one hand, Aristotle hopes and prays that Pythia will not get restive and disgruntled after the exciting life he has painted for her does not immediately materialise, and on the other he is fascinated by his new student, a brilliant, relentlessly curious young boy who wants to be EVERYTHING: an intellectual, a warrior, an athlete, an explorer of unknown lands – and the greatest conqueror of the known world.
Thus begins a relationship that lasts for years, Aristotle always attempting to instil within his headstrong charge the virtue of moderation over extremism in all things, the perfect balance between the two – the Golden Mean – with only partial effect. Aristotle’s teachings are undermined on several levels by court intrigue from other, lesser tutors, and Alexander’s mother Olympias ‘s sick dependence on her beautiful son, not to mention the prince’s own dreams of glory. He is gradually forced to relinquish all influence on Alexander and eventually is compelled to watch in horror as King Phillip is assassinated. Though the prince is never blamed for his father’s murder, many fingers are pointed at Olympias as the culprit, but Alexander does not care: he is now king and can embark on his life’s course.
Canadian writer Annabel Lyon writes beautifully of these great figures of history. In spare, elegant,
sometimes bawdy prose she constructs the life and times of a militant people with great care and skill, and with almost ridiculous ease breathes thrilling life into ancient heroes of culture and war who have remained a huge influence on the world for more than 2000 years. Highly recommended.
The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey
Peter Carey is one of Australia’s most famous and prolific novelists; he has won numerous literary awards, including the Man Booker Prize (twice!), and each new work is greeted with delight by his legions of admirers – including me: after reading his marvellous comic novel ‘Parrot and Olivier in America’, (scroll down all the way to China to read that review!) I am a committed fan, and while there is much of a mechanical bent that went right over my head in this latest book, there is also much to savour and admire; his wonderful facility for dialogue; his great flare for mood and nuance, and the complete credibility of his characters.
Catherine Gehrig is a Conservator and Horologist for one of London’s many museums, the fictional Swinburne. She restores and repairs all manner of clocks and antique mechanisms, and has had an all-consuming love affair for the last 13 years with a curator of Metals at the same institution, Matthew Tindall, a married man with two grown sons. Weekends and holidays with her lover, and her profession are all she needs to feel whole and a perfectly functioning, happy woman – until Matthew dies suddenly of a massive heart attack. Catherine is reeling, unmanned, shocked to the core – and she can’t turn to anyone for sympathy, for her great love affair has been kept secret from her work colleagues, and she has no family she can turn to. She is completely, frighteningly alone – she cannot even attend his funeral, for the official, despised ‘wife’ will be centre stage as chief mourner.
Catherine hits the booze for the next few days; she can’t concentrate at all on her work, that of restoring a beautiful French clock, and vodka is the only thing that can get her through the nights - until her Head of Department, Eric Croft, presents her with a challenge that will eventually rouse her from her terrible grief sufficiently enough to start functioning again: the restoration of an automaton, constructed in the 19th century for a rich English manufacturer, Henry Brandling. His young son Percy was ailing and tubercular; after embarking on many different and desperate cures, Brandling decided that an automaton, a mechanical duck, would be the last, greatest entertainment for his precious little boy. Brandling’s journals are included with the huge jumble of parts, and the account of his trip to Germany in 1854 to find the very best Black Forest clockmaker to construct his dream enthrals Catherine: Henry and Catherine narrate alternate chapters and the reader is enthralled too by Henry’s account of the man who eventually constructs for Henry not a duck, but something much more: is he a liar, a conman, a visionary, a genius – or all of those things?
Peter Carey writes movingly about the grief suffered by both his protagonists: the reader has great sympathy for them even though they are not always likeable, but the last third of the book is most memorable for the thrill that starts to build as the automaton, splendid and awe-inspiring, nears completion, and the gradual taking of centre-stage by Catherine’s gorgeous young Sloane Ranger assistant, who has started to manifest some worrying problems of her own. There is also a last, final mystery for the reader to chew on, and this reader certainly didn’t solve it – engines big or small have always stayed under the bonnet for me, but the historical enigma intrigued me greatly, and probably will for a long time. Highly recommended.
Wulf, by Hamish Clayton
Hamish Clayton was recently announced as the winner of the prize for the NZ Society of Authors Best First Book, and deservedly so: he has written an extraordinary, mesmerising account of early 19th century New Zealand traders and their dealings with the brilliant and ruthless Te Rauparaha, using that feared Rangatira’s exploits as a modern retelling of the 10th century poem ‘Wulf’, a verse that has resisted clear translation by scholars ever since it was written – and shall probably continue to do so, because of the myriad shades of meaning in so many of the Old English words.
Here we have Mr. Clayton’s interpretation of the poem underlying factual events in 1830 when the merchant brig ‘Elizabeth’ sailed to New Zealand from Sydney to trade with Te Rauparaha. At that time, Te Rauparaha was so powerful that he held sway over the lower North Island, and had ambitions to conquer Ngai Tahu who had a stronghold on Banks Peninsula. Te Rauparaha himself had captured Kapiti Island and turned it into a fortress, unassailable to war parties of any number due to the brilliance of his military tactics. He was justly feared and had fully earned his title ‘The Napoleon of the Pacific’. His mana was held in awe by ‘the white goblins’ as well as all Maori, for this chief also held the monopoly over a huge region in the trade of flax and whale oil, for which he received tools, blankets – and muskets.
The ‘Elizabeth’s voyage is narrated by a nameless crewmember, a man aghast at the strangeness and beauty of this new and savage land, it’s cruel weather in winter turning into searing heat in summer, trees which in winter were black and green and gloomy, bursting in the new warmth into bloody riots of red: everything seems to become its opposite. The crew is entertained and enthralled during their trip down the coast to Kapiti by Cowell, the ship’s trading master, a young man fluent in Maori who has already met Te Rauparaha and is happy to relate stories of the great man’s exploits – and his utter ruthlessness when dealing with his enemies. Cowell baptises him ‘The Wolf’, and the name takes hold.
Cowell is indeed a bard, a great spinner of tales to entertain and inform – but he is not able to counsel his captain and first mate against entering into a deal to receive enormous amounts of flax if they would consent to take Te Rauparaha and 120 of his warriors south to Banks Peninsula, hidden on the ‘Elizabeth’ there to capture by trickery the Ngai Tahu chief Tamaiharanui and his family. The predicted bloodbath ensues, and everyone is dishonoured by the outcome, including the captain of the ‘Elizabeth’: as a last act of treachery, Te Rauparaha reneges on the fifty tons of flax he promised and the brig is forced eventually to return to Sydney and ignominy – and criminal charges against captain and crew for being accessories to the murder of ‘native New Zealanders’.
Mr. Clayton has told this story so convincingly that the reader journeys willingly with his beautifully realised characters every step of the way: his juxtaposition of the old ‘Wulf’ with the new is clever and intriguing and it is satisfying to know that New Zealand literature has a superlative new voice to tell our stories.
The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye
The city of New York in August, 1845: it is high summer and all, especially the poor, are suffering from the dreadful heat and the illnesses that flourish in the noisome, rancid downtown tenements. Despised Irish emigrants, arriving in their thousands from a home country that can no longer feed them – the Potato Famine has started – are clustered in rat-infested ghettos, wondering if they have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire: their children are starving and the only work they can find is that which no ‘native’ will do. Fires start easily in such conditions and a huge one, destroying several blocks, razes the accommodation, job and hopes of Timothy Wilde, barkeep, aged 27. He has saved his wages for years so that he can eventually feel prosperous enough to offer marriage to charity worker Mercy Underhill, virtuous daughter of a protestant minister renowned for his tireless efforts on behalf of the poor – as long as they are not Irish catholics. There is constant friction between Mercy and her father; he lost his beloved wife to the cholera she contracted nursing those Irish savages and he can’t bear to think that his cherished girl would meet the same fate. Mercy defies him at every turn, and Tim’s adoration of her knows no bounds.
Sadly, he feels no such admiration for his elder brother Valentine who has looked after him (minimally, he feels) since the death of their parents in a farm fire when Tim was 10. Valentine indulges all his animal appetites, is totally unscrupulous – and has just been made a captain in the newly created Police force, a fledgling organisation founded by Justice George Washington Matsell in a desperate attempt to instil some kind of lawful order to a city that wallows in chaos and anarchy. Valentine ropes Tim in as a Roundsman for the 6th Ward, giving him a Copper Star to wear to signify he is on the side of right: Tim hates his big, bluff brother even more but is forced to comply – he has lost everything in the fire and unless he wants to starve he must adapt to his new circumstances. And what circumstances they are!
On his way home to his new lodgings he is nearly knocked over by a terrified little girl clad only in a pretty nightgown – it is soaked in blood not her own and there begins a mystery as fascinating and sordid as the great city itself, particularly when Tim establishes that the child is an escapee from a brothel, where there are other child prostitutes, all of whom are coerced into selling themselves because ‘the madam provides fresh food’.
His police work uncovers the graves of twenty children, all with their rib cages opened like the sign of the cross: it appears that a serial killer is abroad, intent on stoaking religious and racial hatred for whatever ends he desires, and the sacrifice of little children means nothing if they are all Irish.
This story is so fast-plotted and such a page-turner that I had to keep reading until the very end; then I was sorry there wasn’t more. (And it will take some time to guess whodunit: this tale has more twists and turns than the reader can keep track of.) Ms. Faye is a storyteller extraordinaire, evoking an excellent sense of time and place and characters that are utterly credible. An added bonus for me was the ‘flash talk’, the thieves’ argot that has existed since the 17th century, evolving here into an 1840’s version and the forerunner to so many of our colloquial expressions – yep, a bloke was still a bloke in those days; he hadn’t evolved into ‘dude’! Highly recommended.