On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks. I’m on a bit of a roll with Faulks at the moment, having recently re-read Birdsong. He’s such an accomplished writer and what I like the most is how he effortlessly shifts novelistic scenes. This book is set in the United States in 1959 against the backdrop of the Kennedy/Nixon debates and Presidential election campaign. The MC is Mary van der Linden, the wife of British diplomat Charlie van der Linden. They are stationed in Washington and Mary has an affair with Frank Renzo, a New York reporter. Charlie has drinking problems and has lost money through bad investments. Mary’s mother is dying back in London and her two children are in boarding school in the UK.

So far it sounds like your average ho-hum romance novel – bored British housewife meets outgoing, attractive American man and they have a fling. Where Faulks excels though is in the detail, which raises this novel way above a predictable romance. He weaves in the US-Soviet Cold War, McCarthyism, FBI investigations into suspect Communists, the appeal of JFK and the drabness of Nixon, and racial tensions of the time period. When Mary goes to Moscow to help Charlie (who has basically suffered a nervous breakdown), you really feel what Cold War Russia must have been like.

Characterisation is faultless. Any woman who has been in love will engage with Mary and her moral dilemma. Traditionally-raised in the UK and a dutiful diplomatic wife, should she follow her heart and be with Frank or do what is expected and remain with Charlie and the two children? What I like about Faulks’ writing is that he always explores moral dilemmas and powerful themes, such as desire and attraction; fidelity; death; self-destruction and so on.

Frank and Charlie both live with memories of World War II (in which Charlie and Frank served) and this results in an apprehensiveness toward the Cold War and the feeling that the US is losing the race.

The title, On Green Dolphin Street, comes from a Miles Davis jazz tune that Frank plays for Mary. The song becomes a symbol for Mary of her daring and her exciting existence in Frank’s world. I was worried how the novel would end and Faulks did not disappoint by taking the easy way out. This is a novel on so many levels. Extremely well-written and paced.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Debut novel. Set in Amsterdam in 1686 (why are so many current books set in old-world Amsterdam?) it is the tale of (yet another) young girl, 18 year-old Petronella Oortman, who marries the wealthy Dutch merchant, Johannes Brandt (who is about to turn 40 years old). He works for the VOC or Dutch East India Company. You also have the archetypal waspish sister-in-law, Marin Brandt – very Mrs Danveresque.

What then follows is a lukewarm story for me. Johannes gives his young bride a miniature house, which is an exact replica of their marital home and its occupants. Petronella (or Nella) obtains tiny figurines from an enigmatic miniaturist who is Norwegian apparently and whose role in the story I never really grasped. The miniaturist sub-plot sort of went nowhere. Well, other than she has “hair like pale gold thread”(which we are told several times) and she seems to be glimpsed for a moment or two by Nella, then mysteriously vanishes. Nella spends a lot of time wandering around Amsterdam looking for her.

The title is The Miniaturist yet there is not much in the novel about this character. We are never sure if she possesses some supernatural power or is just a snoop into Nella’s life. We are told her name is also Petronella, so there must be some deep significance I have missed. I found the under-development of this character very dissatisfying.

Johannes basically ignores Nella (it’s an arranged marriage) and there seem to be a lot of secrets in the house. The figurines Nella commissions (and sometimes just receives unsolicited) mirror or sometimes predict increasingly bizarre events in Nella’s life and that of the household. This is intriguing but, again, it kind of went nowhere for me.

Johannes has no physical interest in Nella and it takes little imagination to know why. Johannes is caught in the act with a young boy and is up for sodomy – and in 17th Century Amsterdam that meant the death sentence.

I did find Nella’s transformation throughout the novel interesting but, at the same time, a bit unbelievable and I didn’t really engage with any of the characters to be honest. Marin’s character for me was also under-developed.

Once Johannes is arrested, Nella swings into action selling all the sugar in his warehouse. She seems to suddenly possess a wisdom beyond her years whereas, up to this point in the novel, Nella has been pretty wishy washy. The sugar loaves from Surinam are a bone of contention between Johannes and his difficult and odd clients, Frans and Agnes Meermans. Frans seems to have the steak knives out for Johannes and something seemed to go down between Marin and Frans, years ago, but we’re never quite sure what.

The writing and dialogue is a bit odd at times. For example, Otto is an African former slave who Johannes has rescued and who lives in the house. Nella describes his skin as “dark, dark brown everywhere”. Yeah, okay. The second-half of the book descended into a bit of family melodrama – too much so for my liking.

By the end of the book, I was wondering what was the point of it. Where I think Burton did excel was the very detailed historical research and showing us the 17th Century clashes between staunch Dutch Calvinists and progressive-minded merchants. I very nearly gave this book up half-way through but was hoping that all the secrets would be worth it. Nah.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. This is a Gothic Victorian tale and, my word, what a talented writer. This is Perry’s second novel and it’s set in 1890’s London and Essex. The MC is a feisty widow, Cora Seaborne, who fancies herself as a bit of an amateur geologist. She decamps to Colchester in Essex along with her autistic son, Francis, and his nanny, Martha (who also functions as Cora’s companion). There she meets the Reverend William Ransome and his wife, Stella, who is suffering from tuberculosis.

What follows is a wonderful exploration of friendship: between man and woman; woman and woman; man and man. This is all against the backdrop of the myth of the Essex Serpent – a creature who first appeared in the Essex district in the 17th Century and is said to have reappeared following an earthquake in the 1880s. I won’t spoil it and tell you whether there is a serpent or not. Suffice it to say the hysteria that surrounds the serpent leads to an exploration of science and superstition. Beyond this, the novel deals with ideas and contrasts: medical breakthroughs amidst a society in which a large proportion of the population lived in unsanitary slums; and women’s rights in a society governed by rigid expectations of a woman’s role.

Cora’s character is richly drawn and, at times, I felt I was reading a novel set in contemporary times. This intrigued me enough to read an interview with Sarah Perry. She discussed the research she had undertaken and referred to a particular book that I have hotfooting its way from Book Depository. This book suggests that the Victorian era was not as straight-laced as we presume, with women fainting in the aisles from attacks of the vapours.

Perry’s prose is simply exquisite and this novel has become a firm favourite that I will read again. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. NZ author. Written in 1998. I remember thinking back then that I should buy it and read it, but didn’t. Nearly 20 years later, I found a copy of the book in a secondhand bookshop. In style, this book reminds me of A.S.Byatt’s, Possession. I did struggle with this allegorical novel I have to admit but what an original concept.

It’s an erotic tale; an unorthodox lifelong love story between an angel (whose name is Xas) and Sobran Jodeau, a French vintner. The story starts in 1808 when Sobran stumbles on Xas in the family vineyard and ends when Sobran dies in 1863. Sobran and Xas agree to meet every year on the same night in June. Through their relationship we learn about the family dramas of Sobran (and his love affair with his employer, Baroness de Valday). Murder and madness feature and a cast of characters that is sometimes difficult to keep up with.

I was reminded though of Plato’s cave scenario and his Theory of Forms – a group of people are chained in a dark cave facing a blank wall. Shadows are projected onto the wall from behind them and the prisoners come to view this “world” as their reality. Plato’s Theory of Forms suggests that the non-physical represents reality. So in our world, we have copies or distillations; the real form or idea exists in another realm. Our world is therefore subjective and the other realm is objective.

This concept is the core of Knox’s narrative I think. There is a suggestion, for example, that Xas is an imperfect copy of Christ and that souls are but distilled humans. This is the aspect of the book I found fascinating.

The novel is organised into chapters for each year that Sobran and Xas meet. This made it a bit slow going for me and I didn’t really engage with the characters until the half-way point. The ending where Sobran dies is extremely touching.

Not a quick or easy read but worth it in the end. I believe a sequel was published in 2009 and is titled The Angel’s Cut.

The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman. NZ author. I enjoyed Kidman’s latest book, All Day At The Movies, which I reviewed here. The Infinite Air is the story of New Zealand aviatrix, Jean Batten, who made the first solo flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. I was a tad worried it was going to be a bit like Paula McLain’s irritating novel, Circling the Sun – a fictionalised account of Beryl Markham who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, east to west, in 1936. I reviewed it back in 2015 and felt that Markham had been reduced to a woman falling for rugged men.

Thankfully, Kidman didn’t fall into this trap despite the stories of Batten being (supposedly) something of a gold-digger. Kidman produced a very readable novel in her usual effortless writing style. I didn’t find it a page-turner to be honest but it was interesting enough to keep me going. Kidman did very well in bringing out Batten’s somewhat dysfunctional childhood and relationship with her two brothers, as well as with her rather controlling mother. However, I felt the ending was rushed.

Batten became something of a recluse after WWII and she lived with her mother in various parts of the world: Jamaica (where she may have had an affair with Ian Fleming); Tenerife and Majorca. I felt Kidman whipped through this part of her life a bit too quickly. For example, there was a suggestion (a false one) that Batten had an association with a Nazi spy. This led to her being largely ignored in war efforts whilst other aviators were deployed. This was kind of glossed over a bit in the novel as was her possible relationship with the writer Ian Fleming. At times I felt Kidman was trying a bit too hard to get in all the facts about Batten and because it’s a fictionalised account, you never quite knew what was fact and what was author imagination.

After being an international celebrity in the 1930s, Batten largely fell from public view and interest. What is really sad is how she died in Majorca in 1983. She was bitten by a dog but refused to get treatment until it was too late. Batten was buried in a pauper’s grave because the authorities did not know her real name. It was only five years later that her family back in New Zealand found out about her death.

I felt Kidman did very well in portraying Batten as a troubled but determined soul who was out to prove that she could do better than the male aviators of the time period. Kidman painted the backdrop of colonial life  (I had to remind myself that Australia and New Zealand were still very much “colonial” in the 1920s and 1930s; part of the British Empire and the Commonwealth; and its citizens were British citizens up until the late 1940s when Australian and New Zealand citizenship was recognised).

I particularly enjoyed reading about the early days of aviation and am in awe of Batten’s courage. A good read.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. Written in 2003, it’s the story of Alessandra Cecchi, the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent fabric merchant in Florence during the 15th century Renaissance. She has a love for painting but, as a woman, cannot pursue her passion. Her father commissions a young painter to decorate the family chapel and Alessandra is intoxicated by his talent and the two ultimately provide the romantic thread for the novel. Alessandra marries a much older man (as family and society dictated) and the novel is as much about the limits on a woman’s role during that time period as it is the story of Florence (which suffered four years of Savonarola’s extreme puritanical grip).

Dunant is a very strong writer and certainly conjures up life and death in Florence in the 1400s. I was puzzled by the ending though (which I won’t give away in case you want to read this book). Alessandra was such a strong personality that I felt the ending wasn’t true to character. There is also a murder sub-plot that I felt detracted and was unnecessary.

The really intriguing character is Erila, a black slave in the Cecchi household. She was not bound by the strict etiquette of the time period and could roam the streets, picking up gossip. I imagine she witnessed a very different aspect to 15th Century Florence and this would make a wonderful story in its own right.

Dunant’s writing style is lyrical, at times almost poetic. I did have a few further gripes with the book – at times the dialogue sounded too modern and I would have ditched the Prologue. I’m not a fan of Prologues at the best of times and I think this one gave away too much too soon. I also think the conflict between Alessandra and one of her brothers, Tomaso, was forced and unbelievable. I would have thought that a brother’s role in 15th C Italian families was to be protective of sisters.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book and appreciate Dunant’s meticulous research. It just wasn’t the page turner I’d hoped.

 

 

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