Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Last Hours, by Minette Walters

Ms Walters is more noted for her popular crime novels than historical stories, but with ‘The Last Hours’ she proves that she is comfortable in either genre, bringing to awful life Fourteenth-Century England and the horrors of the Black Death as it swept like God’s punishment through the country, killing entire villages within days.

Her story begins with the departure of Sir Richard of Develish, a dissolute Norman knight, from his Demesne to arrange a marriage between his 14 year-old daughter Eleanor to the son of a neighbouring Lord: both families depend on the match to increase their faltering fortunes; the marriage will be an alliance to strengthen their hold over the hundreds of serfs who work the land for them under the feudal system, increasing the taxes and tithes they must pay.

Lady Anne, Sir Richard’s long-suffering convent-educated wife remains behind with her daughter Eleanor. She is the real strength of the Demesne, making all the decisions pertaining to the efficient running of the estate, for Sir Richard cannot read, nor does he care to: he has stewards and his mousy wife to do that for him. He would rather drink and hunt and rape his female serfs and servants – the younger the better, even children; after all, they all belong to him. They are his property, bound to him: slaves.

Eleanor feels the same way; she is her father’s daughter regardless of Lady Anne’s counselling and she is looking forward to her marriage so that she will be elevated in station; then she can treat serfs any way she wants, without the curbing influence of her impossibly pious mother, who is beloved by all who are bonded to her. And she will show that Thaddeus Therkell, bastard son of one of the servants that she knows how to use a whip to wipe that smirk off his face; he is far too attached to her mother. She will show him who has the real authority.

But her plans come to nothing, for Sir Richard returns from his journey with a terrible plague, caught from his hosts at the castle – there will be no marriage for her prospective groom has died, as did everyone else who came in contact with those who were struck down; now her own father is suffering – and her mother will not let him cross the moat into his own manor for fear that everyone will be infected. How dare she refuse him entry?

But the Lady Anne can and does, and is secretly delighted that the husband she loathed has died the death he deserved, as she sets about trying to ensure that her people remain healthy – and have sufficient food to weather an unknown future.

Ms Walters does a fine job of recreating the life and spirit of the times, even if the characters are very black-and-white – Lady Anne is a saint, Sir Richard and his odious daughter are definitely sinners, and Thaddeus is heroic, the saviour of the noble serfs - but nitpicking aside, this is still an absorbing, credible story of one of the most frightening times in history – and it ends on a cliffhanger, for there is a second volume to come. I’m looking forward to it.


Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

It is 1934 and eleven year old Anna Kerrigan is accompanying her father Eddie to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn to see Mr Dexter Styles, a rich nightclub owner who might have some work for Eddie. Anna is not to know that the work is illegal, for Eddie is a bagman, delivering and collecting pay-offs to various criminals and mob figures. Times are hard: the Great Depression has changed peoples’ lives forever, and what was formerly unthinkable and to be avoided at all costs, has become the norm. Eddie’s family must be fed, and he will do what he must to keep them all together.

The meeting is successful, and until 1940 Eddie’s family live comfortably until Eddie suddenly disappears – but not without leaving a wad of cash and a separate bank account for his wife. Anna is stunned, miserable and furious at her father; she always thought she was his confidante – he could tell her anything, but obviously didn’t. He has betrayed her.

Now it is 1942: America is preparing for war after the horror attack on Pearl Harbor; all the men are joining up and women are recruited to do their jobs for the ‘duration of hostilities’. Anna, now nineteen and breathing the heady air of enormous change gets a job at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, manufacturing small parts for machinery for the engine rooms of battle ships. It is intoxicating to think that her efforts, small as they are, will have a part in winning the war – because America WILL win the war: of this there is no doubt. And when she sees commercial divers descending the depths to weld repairs on the huge ships in port, she is more excited than ever: that is a REAL job, embodying skill, risk, dexterity – and strength. Not a job for a woman, but Anna has already suffered enough adversity and disappointment in her short life to fight to the last breath for this, and her eventual success opens up a new world only made possible by the terrible fact of war.

A chance meeting at one of his nightclubs reintroduces Anna to Dexter Styles, still as rich and mysterious as ever. Dexter works for the Mob, but he has also married into Old Money to the extent that he feels secure and untouchable; no Mob figure would dare to harm the son-in-law of a retired Admiral, a New York Brahmin of such repute that his advice is sought by Presidents. Dexter is The Man: he revels being the bridge between two worlds. He also knows what happened to Anna’s father, and it is her mission to make him reveal his secrets.

Ms Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her wonderful book ‘Welcome to the Goon Squad’ (see 2011 review below). The quality of her writing is as high as ever – the sinking of a merchant ship by U-boats and the consequent scramble for survival on rafts and lifeboats was a literary milestone for me; I have never felt so present, so involved in that hapless voyage, and so glad when some of the wonderful characters survived.

Once again, huge talent, impeccable research and a trio of unforgettable protagonists ensures that Ms Egan will remain at the forefront of contemporary literary fiction. This is another great book.


A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Since its publication last year this novel has generated extraordinary praise, not least being included in Time magazine’s top 10 books for 2010 and this year winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Even Oprah endorsed it. (Is that good or bad?) I approached it with trepidation: was it too great for mere mortals to read? ( I have been caught before). Oh me of little faith: All the reviews are true.

This story fully deserves every accolade lavished by the literary pundits – and anyone else who wants to have a wild ride through time with Ms Egan as she explores through her characters the various selves we become at different times of our lives. Through a dizzying series of flashbacks and leaps forward, the reader follows Bennie Salazar, failed music producer and his personal assistant Sasha, ‘capable in every way but for her kleptomania’ as they are moulded and buffeted by the forces of time, and the influence and effect they have on their world through the connections they make, both intimate and tenuous, with the people they meet.

There is a host of different characters here, and sometimes it takes the reader a little while to connect the dots, but when that happens, a wonderful pointillist portrait emerges of our flawed and ailing contemporary society, and an irrevocable truth that time rules us all: the onrush of it; its implacability; and how peoples’ lives are helpless before it and the inexorable changes it brings. In Ms. Egan’s novel time is a Goon, and no-one escapes a visit from the Goon Squad, but Bennie, after a lifetime’s vicissitudes is no fool: he knows the score – ‘ Time’s a goon – are you going to let time push you around?’ No, sir! This is a great book!