Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth opens 1918 in Washington state as the Spanish flu outbreak begins. Historical fiction, the novel imagines the lives of the citizens in the fictious Commonwealth after the town votes to ‘reverse’ quarantine: as no one in the town is yet sick, they vote to forbid entry or exit from the town and post guards to ensure the quarantine is followed. It closely follows the Worthy family, the patriarch of whom, Charles, is the mill owner and unelected leader of the town; the (adopted) son, Philip, is our protagonist. Continue reading
Here are a few reasons I didn’t enjoy Jennifer Robson’s *After the War is Over*:
1. It was altogether ridiculously predictable in plot: to the point that I anticipated the union of our lower-class protagonist with her Lord for so many chapters I skimmed through yet another obstacle-in-the-path-of-true-love, stopping only to admire the frequent use of ‘visage’ and ‘shirtwaist’ (and other lovely period diction).
2. On the subject of unnecessary attention to historical particulars: It included many (many) pointless detours in plot with the sole purpose of showing off historical detail. Details that were only there (I can only assume) because the author holds a PhD in History and seems quite taken with historical specificity for post-Great War era fashion, dances and food. Detours like visits to dress shops, or bedroom dance lessons. Page long descriptions of historical bathing suits. Really. Detours with no discernable relation to character or theme development. Detours entirely devoted to hats.
3. The protagonist is a repressed, self-righteous free spirit just waiting for the right (rich, handsome, rich, cultured, sensitive, rich) man to liberate her from her self-imposed dourness and expose the true glow of her unique petals of utter stunning beauty flower.
Here is 1 1/2 reasons I did:
1. Because Downtown Abbey got it right: there’s something fascinating about the historical moment of 1919 in which class and gender hierarchies (nevermind accepted and expected rules of decorum) get shaken.
1.5 Because it includes a beautiful scene of our protagonist casting her vote in the first election that allowed women (of certain classes) to vote. And because this reader cannot resist swelling feeling of gratitude and respect for those women (and men) who fought – and fight – so hard for franchise. That said, this scene takes up the first three pages of the book. So you could read those and then… stop.
Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me sets out to tell the story of the impact of the beginning of the First World War on a British coastal village and the people who live there. Ranging from the introduction of blackout and rationing to the surveillance of ‘enemy aliens’ to grief in response to devastating casualties to the introduction of local building code restrictions the novel charts the pervasiveness of the changes. It does so beautifully, fully and quietly.
By focusing on the narrative of one – foot twisted – teenage boy, Thomas, the reader is offered a particular, if expansive, lens through which to view the depth and extent of the impact of the war. In the opening moments of the story Thomas befriends a tourist couple, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald, who speak German and use binoculars to look at flowers (dangerous, indeed). [Not being much of an art follower I didn’t realize Mackintosh (the titular “Mac”) was a “real life” artist until doing a bit of reading beyond the text. Turns out he’s a big enough deal to have his own “society” and a number of proper biographies]. The collected experiences of Thomas and Mac are not grand or typically heroic, they are, instead, small and sincere (for instance Thomas borrows Mac’s binoculars in an attempt to save him from prison). Yet in the smallness of their story are woven the titanic changes of the time and the contours of total war: shifting gender roles, cataclysmic technological changes, xenophobia, state control of movement/habit and economy and the uncertainty of what is to come (I found this most impressive, that as we readers know how and when the war will end, Freud achieves the opacity of the future for her characters in a subtle, yet masterful, way).
The uncertainty of what is to come concludes the novel. I am, myself, uncertain about how I feel about the conclusion. Rather than spoil anything, I’d encourage you to read Mr Mac and Me and to let me know how you reacted to its ending and what you think it means for the power – and limits – of self-actualization and imagination.