MORE GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2013
Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle
Never has man’s inhumanity to man been more amply demonstrated over thousands of years than in the iniquitous practice of slavery. The Romans called their slaves ‘talking cattle’, and by the time Ms Wrinkle’s novel opens in 1823, the concept of slavery and slave ownership has changed little.
If a negro is lucky, they will have a ‘good’ master who will feed, clothe and look after them in return for their hard labour, even though their women and/or children could be sold in the future. If the negro is not, cruelty and neglect and a very short life is the fate of his family and himself.
Richardson considers himself a ‘good’ slave owner: he has a large plantation in Tennessee, and though he originally shunned using slave labour as a young man, realises that his fortunes will never improve without it – even though he fought in the Revolutionary war under Washington with a view not just to kick out the British, but to abolish slavery as well.
Now, at the age of 70, he has repressed his youthful ideals and has many slaves to tend his fields and his horses, for Richardson is also a horse- breeder: no-one in the state has a finer eye for equine beauty, stamina and speed than he and he revels in his reputation for knowing which of his stallions or mares should service his neighbour’s horses to produce the ideal progeny.
Unfortunately, financial uncertainty forces him to accept the advice of his partner to hire out to stud his stable slave, Wash (short for Washington): his neighbours are impressed with Wash’s stature, intelligence and strength and desire these qualities in the future children of their female slaves – what a workforce they will have! And what a boon to Richardson’s income! And what an unforgivable indignity is visited upon Wash, to be regarded as one of Richardson’s studs; forced to service whichever fearful, shivering female he is taken to in full, interested view of his owners. He is just another animal to them and he hates them for it, for Wash started out life with a certain degree of freedom, and a mother who was able to cushion slavery’s blows more than most – until a white man strikes him blind in one eye with a hammer for offering an opinion. He didn’t realise then that he should have kept his eyes lowered and his mouth shut.
Now, he knows the drill but inwardly rails against his lot; the only protest he can make is to keep himself apart from everyone, refusing to share his inner self with anyone except Pallas, a neighbour’s slave midwife and his true love. Over time, Richardson finds himself inexplicably drawn to his taciturn and hate-filled piece of property; he wants Wash’s stories, his opinions – his being, the very thing Wash will never relinquish; and in his unwanted, drunken visits at night to Wash’s stable, he eventually unburdens onto his reluctant listener his own stories, hopes, sorrows and disappointments. The tables are turned.
Ms Wrinkle uses gorgeous language to write of unspeakable cruelty and careless kindness; all her characters are expertly and beautifully realised and this, her debut novel, should become by its very objectivity one of America’s literary milestones. This is a superb story about a shameful page in America’s history and Ms Wrinkle’s story brings home to the reader the ultimate irony: just as Richardson’s sons carry the family name into the future, Wash the stud slave’s descendants will also do the same, relishing freedom sooner than anyone thinks. Highly recommended.
Black Irish, by Stephan Talty
It is hard to know where to start with this book: should I list its virtues first (many), or its faults (enough to make me shout ‘AAAAARGH!)?
I’m a fine one to talk about correct grammar – but even so: wouldn’t the most casual and uncritical of readers balk at the fact that one of the murder victims (for this is s novel about a serial killer) starts off being called Gerald, then Gregory, then George before he reverts to being good old Gerald again. WHAAAT??? Are proof readers now extinct in Stephan Talty’s publishing house?
As if that weren’t bad enough, a descriptive sentence was repeated verbatim IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH; what a shameful lack of attention to the most ordinary detail - I mean, this is why authors supposedly submit drafts before the finished product is finally unveiled. In my opinion (and you know how perfect that is!) it lessened the impact and pace of Mr. Talty’s story: having said that, he still winds up the tension of his plot in a very satisfying manner, and his characters – even though they have so many aliases – are credible and well-drawn, particularly the main protagonist, Detective Absalom Kearney.
She is the adopted daughter of a retired police detective, and has followed him into the Buffalo NY police force after a glittering Harvard education. Her stern father is now suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and his condition is also a metaphor for the city of Buffalo – it has entered a decline, especially in its once-great steel industry, and people are leaving in their droves. Typically, those who stay are those who cannot afford to move away, and more than once Abby asks herself why she has returned. Looking after her father is a thankless task, for he has never been an affectionate man and his condition only exacerbates his aloofness.
Fortunately, Abby’s job with the Buffalo PD is very challenging and gives her many chances to show her brilliance – until a series of murders attributed to a particularly clever serial killer show enough evidence to incriminate her, the main investigator.
Mr Talty ramps up the action very competently in all the right places and his depiction of the societal foundering of a big city and its insular and tribal communities is evocative and well written; what a shame his publishers didn’t attend to the groundwork. It would have transformed this good suspense novel into a great one.