Historical fiction. Such a great genre. Have I said it before? I have? Well, I’ll say it again: such a great genre. Something about the space to explore the impossible problems of the present in the safety of the past. Not sure what we should do with the right to abortion? Worried about the lasting impacts of a global pandemic? Fretting about the crumbling of institutions like Church and marriage? To the past! Where we can hod these problems and turn them around without the delightful haze of knowing these are both immediate to our own lives and yet so distant as to be cute: how sweet, they just figured out they should wash their hands before surgery.
So right, what’s the book, Erin. It’s Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, released in summer of 2020, but written pre Covid. Though someone should by Donoghue a lottery ticket (or start calling her prescient instead of
Atwood) for the cluster of issues explored in this book. Set in Dublin in 1918, it is the height of the influenza pandemic. Our protagonist, midwife and nurse Julia Power, is on her own on the influenza maternity ward, where we meet a series of women who have had too many children for want to bodily autonomy or reliable birth control. Julia trades off her duties with another nurse, a nun from a neighbourhood ‘house for women and babies’ where unwed mothers are sent and their children then taken into servitude, and so the narrative probes the consequences of Church and moral absolutism on women’s bodies and family. One of these grown children, Bridie, comes to help on Julia’s ward, and (I’ll admit somewhat unexpectedly – my fault as a reader or that of Donoghue?) introduces questions of sexuality and redemption as she and Julia come to find one another. Which is to say, it is a book thick with Issues for Discussion.
And while I expected to be struck by the similarities to our present moment with respect to the pandemic – the eerie familiarity of advice to keep distance, the shuttering of schools, the terror of a loved one with a cough – and I was, it was the exploration of women’s ability to choose the course of their lives that I found most relevant. The series of women that pass through the maternity ward come as a type: married woman subjected to domestic violence; married woman with 10 babies already; unmarried ‘fallen’ woman bound to a life of shame and exclusion; married woman has stillborn baby but must go home and Carry On. Each of them share in small descriptions of their lives the ways the babies they carry are – whatever else – expected – that even if they are unplanned (as in our ‘fallen’ woman) that there should be a baby born Out of Wedlock, is itself a certainty. That there would be a choice about having the 10th baby or an ability to decide instead of staying with an abusive partner you might… not. These women are contrasted with Julia, of course, but also the woman doctor on the ward – Kathleen – who is literally on the run from the police for her involvement in political ‘crimes’ while she cares for patients with compassion, competence and curiosity.
This contrast serves to sharpen the sense of oppressive constraint and claustrophobia following all of these women. That even those who appear to have the most freedom – Julia who can for some pages ride a bicycle! – are limited by institution and by expectation.
And while it is a wildly topical book that would serve your book club discussion well, it wasn’t fabulous. Parts dragged and some of the passages read as too aware of their own Significance. And there are better (much better ) books about reproductive choice to read right now. But if you find yourself with this one you I suspect you’ll find a certain relief. Things feel bad; things are bad. And perhaps they’ve always been that way.
BIG NEWS. First time ever, but I wrote this review and when I was typing in the ‘tags’ realized that I READ IT BEFORE. And REVIEWED IT BEFORE. And I had NO MEMORY AT ALL that I’d ever encountered the book before! AH! My brain! Anyway, When I read this (in 2011) I was ambivalent. Almost ten years later (let’s grant that the intervening decade may be why I don’t recall it At. All.?) I am less easily swayed. If you want to read the earlier review you can find it here. I will say that 2011 Erin was far more impressed by detail. And actually thought this was a book I’d ‘keep thinking about’ LOL.
And now… the review I wrote before I realized I’d reviewed it before!
It shouldn’t be so boring. What is Left the Daughter opens with a dramatic love triangle that renders protagonist Wyatt Hillier an orphan. It has the drama of U-boats and the war and murder! But then it also has tedious descriptions of scones and gramophone recordings and definitions of words.
Ostensibly told as a series of letters from father to daughter (though what letter would ever include Such Outrageous Detail I don’t know) the novel follows the life of Wyatt as he comes to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, and becomes a… wait. Try to imagine the most boring job you can imagine. Did you guess toboggan and sled maker? You’re right – that falls outside the scope of imagination for most boring, but there it is, all true. He falls in love, but the woman of his affection loves another man. A *gasp* German man amid WWII Nova Scotia. Drama-drama, family-drama. Except… no real drama. Just agonizing mundane exhaustion.
So yeah. I would have stopped reading this one, but I kept thinking it was going to get better. It doesn’t. Don’t. Bother.
It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.
Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.
The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.
Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.
So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.
Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.
The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.
What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).
I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!