Saturday, 9 February 2013

Those Across the River, by Christopher Buehlman
 University professor Frank Nichols and Eudora Chambers are lovers, forced to flee Chicago after their affair is discovered by her husband, a professor of literature at the same university:  it is 1935 and such scandals, particularly in conjunction with Frank’s very public beating by the cuckolded husband, are unforgivable in academia.
Fortunately (or not), Frank has recently inherited a property from an Aunt in a small town in Georgia;  they can hole up there until Eudora’s divorce comes through and they can discreetly legalise their union;  he can begin work on the Great American Civil War History – about one of his ancestors who owned the last big plantation in the area - then they can at last relax and start to enjoy small town life and each other with new neighbours and friends.
Ah, dreams are free, as we all know:  the sleepy hollow of Whitbrow has been hit hard by the depression;  businesses have closed and people have left, but those who remain show kindness and generosity to their new neighbours and maintain a healthy curiosity about them, particularly as they are a handsome young couple all the way from Chicago.  It is a mystery as to why they chose Whitbrow to put down roots.
In turn, Frank and Eudora find it quaint that the townsfolk maintain various rituals and traditions, one such being the monthly release of several hogs into the woods on the other side of the river – these pigs never seem to breed in the wild;  apart from thrashing and squealing sounds soon after their release they are never seen again;  but that doesn’t really mean anything;  the pigs could still be there – it’s just that the locals avoid those woods like the plague.  Stories have been told about ‘haints’ and a fearsome creature called a Look-a-Roo, an enormous dog-like animal who will eat anyone up who ventures into the forest.  Stories told to frighten children into good behaviour?  Maybe, but in all such tales there is a kernel of truth and eventually, Frank and Eudora find to their horror that they really should have stayed out of the woods – in fact, they should never have come to Whitbrow, for nothing good awaits them in either place.
This is Mr Buehlman’s first novel;  previously he has written plays and poetry.  His prose is graceful, describing horrifying events with a spare elegance that more experienced writers can only dream about, and his plotting is measured perfectly, increasing suspense and dread with each chapter, then allowing the reader a breather every now and then with some sly, down-home humour – and thank goodness for that, I say!  I had to keep turning those pages at a great rate until I reached the disturbing conclusion and I haven’t felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck so pleasurably for AAAAGES!  To successfully wed horror with humour is a gift:  Mr Buehlman has it in abundance.

Restoration, by Rose Tremain
(An Oldie but a Goodie!)
I am ashamed to confess that it has taken me  many years to read this very fine book, first written in 1988.  The recent publication of its sequel, ‘Merivel, a Man of his Time’ finally compelled me to stop dawdling (and procrastinating) so that I would know the background provided by Ms Tremain’s earlier novel.
In this new Vintage edition, Ms Tremain has written an introduction comparing the Restoration of the Monarchy under Charles the Second to Thatcherite Britain, a time she utterly abhors:  ‘Men’s eyes turned towards the new King.  The shadow cast by Whitehall was enormous.  It was understood that all blessings, all advancement flowed from here.  The King and the power he could bestow were God, just as money  became God to the British in the 1980s’…….’The stampede for personal advancement began.’
Ms Tremain recounts in masterly fashion the hectic excess of the time;  the adoration of the people for the new Monarch and his wonderful displays of luxury after the gloomy years of Puritanism;  the striving for elevation into the Royal favour by those worthy – and those who weren’t, a perfect example being Robert Merivel, the son of the Royal Glovemakers.
Robert is distressingly plain;  he has a flat nose and ‘hog-bristles for hair’, making him glad of the current fashion for wigs and perukes.  He is not tall but he has a great appetite for overindulgence, especially in food, drink and comely women, but his parents love him dearly and hope that through them he will gain a place at court, for Robert is a student of medicine – a good one, when he can be bothered rousing himself from his bed, and he has a sunny nature and a  ready,self-deprecating wit that endears him to all.
Robert is eventually entrusted with a task from his Monarch:  he must enter into a marriage with Celia Clemence, Charles’s latest love-interest.  In return, he will receive a knighthood, and the use of a grand estate in Norfolk, all in an effort to achieve a spurious respectability for Celia, who, needless to say, is besotted with the King and doesn’t take kindly to the idea of marriage to a buffoon. 
All proceeds according to plan until Celia becomes possessive and demands that Charles, that Divine Ruler, should love no-one but her;  as a result she is banished to Norfolk and her lawful, detested husband.  Robert is just as confused as she, but against his better instincts, falls in love – to his enduring regret:  that was the one thing that his Ruler was sure he wouldn’t do, the one thing that was forbidden him.  Robert finds to his enormous regret that what can be freely given can as soon be taken away.  The King’s displeasure is huge and far-reaching and Robert finds himself forced to face some terrible truths,  sliding down the precipitous slope of disillusionment and self-loathing, and compelled to make drastic changes to his life – and philosophy – in order to survive.
Ms Tremain recounts the huge historical events of the era – the Plague and the Great Fire of London – with such conviction that you would swear she had experienced everything first-hand, and her depiction of the historical titans of the day is utterly convincing.  How glad I am that I read ‘Restoration’:  now I look forward to reading its sequel with great pleasure, for Merivel, despite being ‘A Man of His Time’ and regardless of all his faults, has a beguiling honesty and loyalty to those he holds dear that we would all do well to emulate.  Highly recommended.  

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