MORE GREAT READS FOR AUGUST, 2015
After the Crash, by Michel Bussi
On December 23rd, 1980, an Airbus 5403 flying from Istanbul to Paris crashes during a terrible storm in the Jura mountains bordering Switzerland and France. All are killed, except for a three-month-old girl, found half-frozen in the snow but otherwise unharmed – a miracle baby, a child who survived impossible odds, and the precious darling of her surviving family in France.
But which family?
According to the passenger list, two baby girls were travelling with their parents; Lyse-Rose, 3 month old daughter of the son of a fabulously rich family, the de Carvilles, returning from running subsidiaries of the family business in Turkey, and Emilie, a baby of the same age whose parents, Pascal and Stephanie Vitral had been given a trip to Turkey by Pascal’s parents who had won it themselves but couldn’t make the trip; instead they looked after Marc, Emilie’s elder brother aged two, so that his parents could have a lovely holiday.
The Vitral grandparents are unashamedly working class people who make ends meet by running a food van in Dieppe and the surrounding area. They are salt-of-the-earth good citizens with sound principles – and a strong conviction that the surviving miracle baby is their granddaughter, and they are willing to fight to the end of their slim resources to prove it. Léonce de Carville, grandfather of Lyse-Rose, is also as convinced that the little girl belongs to his family, the difference being that he has enormous wealth and power at his disposal, not to mention the services of Crédule Grand-Duc, a private detective in his employ charged with investigating fully the origins of the surviving child, and establishing beyond doubt that she is a de Carville – for Léonce is so used to controlling the lives and fates of others that he cannot bear to have uncertainties in his own life, let alone lose a fight.
So begins one of the most compulsive page-turners I have read this year. French author Mr Bussi gathers up readers and flings them forward on a truly thrilling, mysterious ride spanning eighteen years, and not once (and I’m usually very good at figuring out whodunit well before the book’s end) was I able to see who resorted to murder, and why: each chapter was never what it seemed!
Mr Bussi’s style is competent and workmanlike; no pretty word pictures here except for the character of Lyse-Rose’s emotionally damaged elder sister Malvina: his prose turns purple and melodramatic to the point of turning her into a Witchy-poo from a fairy tale, but this does little to detract from the overall impact of this high-octane thriller. I hope he is hard at work on another one. Most highly recommended.
Balm, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Ms Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel, ‘Wench’ established her credentials as an important new writer of contemporary American fiction (see 2010 review below); now she cements her reputation with ‘Balm’, her exploration of America after the Civil War; of the effects of emancipation and the efforts of former slaves to make a new life for themselves in a world as frightening for its new experiences as the old order they have just survived.
Madge has never been a slave; she is known as a ‘Root woman’, a woman who heals illnesses – and heartaches – with her hands and the herbal balms and potions she has learnt to make from her aunts, hard and taciturn women whose mother gained their freedom by curing their master from a grievous illness. In return, he gave them a little house to live in as well as their papers: their reputation ensured their continued free status in Tennessee, and Madge should be more than satisfied with her lot. But she is not. She journeys to Chicago, a huge adventure for someone such as she, and eventually finds work as a maid – for which she is paid! – with Mrs Sadie Walker, a well-to-do white widow.
Sadie has her own cross to bear: she has come to Chicago to claim the house and income of her late husband Samuel, a man she knows next-to-nothing about, for Sadie’s father arranged her marriage to the strapping soldier, so much older than she, for a cash payment to save his dying business. After less than two months of marriage, most of it spent apart, Samuel is killed in battle – and Sadie is free. Free to eventually follow her real calling, which is to be a medium, to commune with the spirits, and there are as many of them as there are people crushed by grief, longing for a message or any kind of contact with their dead loved ones.
Sadie is not a charlatan; she genuinely hears the calls of those who have passed over, and gains a reputation for her sincerity and the accuracy of her information – sadly, she finds that her father who sold her to save his business is horrified by her ‘godless’ milking of peoples’ suffering, and the advantage she takes of their grief – even though she communes with his wife, her dead mother, who sends him a message. He is unmoved and considers Sadie evil, an opinion causing her enormous heartache, for she longs for his approval – but not enough to turn her from her chosen path.
Sadie has a sometime carriage driver, a freed slave called Hemp Harrison; ‘Hemp’ for the crop that he harvested on his master’s farm, and Harrison for his master’s name. Hemp has come to Chicago in a vain search for his wife, sold with her daughter elsewhere two years before. He is desperate to find her, but literally does not know where to look after all his enquiries draw a blank: his heart is heavy, for he loves his wife dearly but his peace of mind becomes non-existent when he and Madge start to form a growing attachment, a fact that horrifies them both for vastly different reasons.
Ms Perkins-Valdez weaves the lives and fortunes of this unlikely trio irrevocably together with her beautiful language and imagery. My only criticism (and it is a small one) is that the conclusion is a little rushed. It poses more questions than answers, but the overall message is clear: ‘In a land so devastated by death, the best healing balm was hope.’ Highly recommended.
WENCH, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Despite its Bodice-Ripper title, Ms Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel is anything but – rather, it is the second damning account of slavery that I have read this year; more subtle, perhaps, than Andrea Levy’s ‘The Long Song’ (recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) but having the same horrific impact: how can people who purport to be civilized visit so much inhumanity on their fellow men?
‘Wench’ is first set in 1852 at Tawawa House, a fashionable resort in Ohio, popular with Southern gentlemen who take the waters every year, go hunting and fishing – but leave their wives behind, bringing instead female slaves who service their every need. Four of these women become friends and look forward to the annual renewal of contact; their individual histories graphically demonstrate blatant cruelty or the same evil disguised as kind and loving treatment: Lizzie’s master professes to love her; she is his ‘true wife’ and has given him two children of whom he is particularly proud, especially as his white wife is barren, but he refuses her only wish that he give the children their freedom: they are his lawful property, and as such he is entitled to sell them if he wishes. Mawu belongs to Mr. Tip, whom she hates and bravely stands up to at every opportunity – she even makes an escape attempt, only to be brought back by the slavecatchers, stripped naked and whipped by Mr. Tip while the other slaves are forced to watch ‘as a warning’. He then sodomises her and her humiliation is complete. Reenie is owned by ‘Sir’, her late father - and Master’s son: he uses her whenever he pleases, then ‘loans’ her to the resort manager. Each woman must deal with her own tragedies as best they can; sometimes they make the right choices but for all but one of these good women, slavery is the only option: they dare not leave their children. Their only hope that life may someday be different is that the first rumours of Abolition have started to surface; indeed, Ohio, where they ‘vacation’ every year with their masters is a Free State – could this mean that more and more people are willing to protest against the appalling outrage of slavery? Emancipation does not come until the South has fought a bloody and unsuccessful Civil War in defense of its slave-based economy; meantime, the ‘wenches’ must remain strong in the face of their thralldom, and resolute in the hope that the next generation will know a better life. Ms. Perkins-Valdez has produced a superb story, moving and beautifully written.