Friday, October 15, 2021

When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott, a beautifully written post-WWI novel of mystery, loss, and hope

Caroline Scott’s The Photographer of the Lost (US title The Poppy Wife) is one of my favorite recent novels about WWI, so when I had some free time, her follow-up, When I Came Home Again, rose to the top of my TBR. Like its predecessor, it’s a gorgeously melancholy depiction of the era, evoking the personal and national losses of the Great War and their enduring aftereffects – not just on returning soldiers but on the families left behind.

Both are slow-burning mysteries, though atypical ones. There’s no formal detective, just a natural unfolding of events. The Photographer of the Lost has the stronger plot of the two, though this one is still very good.

The story opens in November 1918 in Durham Cathedral. A man is caught desecrating its Galilee chapel by drawing chalk illustrations on the flagstones. Though clearly a former soldier, he has no memory of who he is. The police give him the name “Adam Galilee” and place him into the care of Dr. James Haworth, who brings him to a convalescent hospital in Westmorland called Fellside, in the hopes he’ll recall his name and previous life. It doesn’t work; the trauma he experienced is so terrible that it remains buried.

In 1920, when a newspaper publishes a collection of photographs, including Adam’s, under the strapline “the living unknown warriors,” a parade of women comes forth, all wanting Adam to be their lost loved one.

Three women feel certain he belongs with them. Scott conveys their desperate eagerness to claim Adam as their son, brother, or spouse, and Adam’s panicked reaction since he doesn’t recognize any of them. But who is he? Is it possible none are right? Memories can be unreliable. And James, in wanting to identify Adam, may be pushing him down an incorrect path. James is also facing his own wartime demons, which affect his marriage to Caitlin, a talented potter.

The principal mystery involves Adam, but because he’s initially a blank slate upon which others project their hopes, the women’s tragic stories resonate more strongly. There’s Celia, who refuses to believe her son Robert will never come home. Anna hopes for a fresh start with her missing, troubled husband, Mark. Lucy was left to raise her brother’s children after he failed to return from France and resents her stifling existence. Caitlin is the only woman Adam feels comfortable with, since she doesn’t want anything from him except friendship.

Over time, Adam’s character gets colored in. He’s a gentle soul with artistic talent who knows the Latin names for plants, but not his own name, or the name of the woman whose image he draws.

At the end, some clues are left unexplained, which bothered me a bit. But I did appreciate how well the novel transported me to the post-WWI era, and into the minds of men and women searching for an exit to the holding patterns of their lives.

When I Come Home Again was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2020 (I read it from a personal copy I purchased on Kindle).

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers unveils the hidden lives of ordinary people in '50s Britain

Can Gretchen Tilbury’s tale about her 10-year-old daughter be true, and if so, how is it scientifically possible?

In 1957, reporter Jean Swinney, pushing 40, has a tedious home life caring for her irritable, reclusive mother. In investigating a claim of parthenogenesis, a virgin birth, for her suburban London newspaper, Jean sees her world unexpectedly transformed.

Surprisingly, she finds no apparent holes in Gretchen’s story. Gretchen had been bedridden in a clinic alongside others when Margaret was conceived. As mother and daughter undergo laboratory tests to prove or debunk the hypothesis, Jean’s intrinsic loneliness leads her to respond to the Tilburys’ friendly overtures.

Margaret is a charming girl, and Howard, Gretchen’s older husband, has a disarming manner that attracts Jean. As Jean’s personal and professional circles become enmeshed, the plot takes dramatic, even shocking turns.

British novelist Chambers penetrates the secret hopes and passionate inner lives of ordinary working people throughout her gripping novel, while its locked-room-style medical mystery calls to mind Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (2016). The characters provoke so much empathy, readers may have trouble remembering that they’re fictional.

Small Pleasures will debut in the US on Tuesday this week; the publisher is Custom House, a HarperCollins imprint.  In the UK, where it's been out since last July, it was longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction and was a breakout hit.  I reviewed it for Booklist's September 1 issue from an Edelweiss e-copy.

I thought about this book for days after I finished and wasn't able to read anything else during that time. If you've read it, you'll likely understand why; I'll say no more!

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Historical Research: A Many-Faceted Jewel, an essay by Catherine Gentile, author of Sunday's Orphan

Catherine Gentile's Sunday's Orphan, a novel of a woman's self-discovery and family history set in 1930s Jim Crow-era Georgia, was published in September. I'm pleased to welcome the author here today for a post about her research.

~

Historical Research: A Many-Faceted Jewel
Catherine Gentile

The historical fiction of Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, The Known World, inspired me to fulfill my desire to write about the complexities of life during 1930. I envisioned a novel set on a plantation on a fictional island town off the coast of Georgia. Little did I realize the scope and depth of research needed to support the characters who would live in that island town, from the weather, topology, flora, and fauna, to the modes of transportation, the embracing issues of politics and religion, and squirmy birthing and funeral practices—I researched every detail. As painstaking a process as it was, I loved every second!

To gain a deeper appreciation for the layout and management of Southern plantations, I visited plantations in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia. I then designed Mearswood Plantation and located the cabins, barns, and outbuildings, pastures, and gardens within a sketch. This primitive drawing served as an invaluable map that helped me maintain consistency of locations and positions of structures relative to one another.

Shack in woods, side view

I wasn’t sure what the simple cabins and privies on the plantation looked like. Fortunately, while hiking in Georgia, taking photos of the flora and fauna within the marshes, I came upon the serendipitous answer: cabins in varying stages of decay. These pretty much substantiated my imaginings, but the fact that they were situated on raised posts was a revelation.

Shack in woods, front view


I didn’t have the same luck with privies, thank goodness! Again, I resorted to my primitive sketching ability, which gave me enough information to address the privies that appeared in the novel more often than I had anticipated!

Hiking proved invaluable from recreational and research points of view, as I gained understanding of the poor soil quality, the variety of trees, the construction of shell middens, and intensity of forest growth. The abundance of Old Man’s Beard, aka Spanish Moss, became an important detail for the novel. Naughty as this was, I confess to secreting samples of pine straw and other plants home for me to study.

Shell-packed dirt road in the woods


The idyllic nature of hiking found its polar opposite in the unsettling research on Jim Crow “law” and its soul-crushing abuses. Try as I did to circumvent incorporating such information in my novel, fellow authors in my writing group argued that they were essential to the story. Gilbert King’s The Devil in the Grove helped me adjust my attitude and hence, set the stage for writing those chapters. I needn’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say, online offerings, memorials to victims of lynching, helped in this regard. Acts of hanging and reports of the celebratory atmosphere—bands, parties, picnics—surrounding these acts captured the cruelty. Postcards of individuals on whom these acts were committed captured its heart-searing insensitivity. As much as I loved research, working these pieces of human history into Sunday’s Orphan was dispiriting.

Later, during an antiquing trip, the research gods smiled on me when I happened across a 1927 copy of Successful Farming. This treasure trove contained articles on farming, raising livestock and children, putting up preserves, and farm finances. Loaded with ads, these primarily black and white pictures provided close ups of furnishings, kitchen tools and appliances, and gave me a peek at work-a-day clothing and their more fashion conscious cousins, hats and dresses. And yes, I bought that copy of Successful Farming.

Marsh's edge

 
I located internet photos depicting the scandalous decrease in the post Roaring Twenties length of women’s skirts, and incorporated this small, but telling detail into Sunday’s Orphan, when a fashionable Bostonian visits Mearswood Plantation in Georgia and relinquishes her city clothing for hand-sewn country attire. Fascinating sociological details such as women’s horrified responses to manufactured undergarments replacing those that were hand-made appeared as well, but those had to be saved for another story.

Librarians were generous in helping me locate information. One knowledgeable research librarian at Tybee Library plied me with stacks of resources containing answers to questions I had amassed while drafting Sunday’s Orphan. Another librarian loaned me audio tapes of interviews conducted with rural Southern midwives, describing their practices and experiences.

Catherine Gentile
(credit: Lesley McVane)
There, however, was little documentation to prove that people living in 1930 actually farmed the scrappy soil on Georgia’s barrier islands. I couldn’t find the answer in the library, and residents with whom I spoke weren’t sure. Farming played an important role in Sunday’s Orphan, and I wanted to be sure it had, in fact, occurred on the barrier islands. Walking through a local cemetery, I considered my authorial options should this piece be untrue. Again, the research gods smiled on me: there, in Tybee Island Memorial Cemetery, was the headstone of Nameless Brown, husband, father, and farmer.

Research deepened my experience of Georgia; now, I’m anxious to draft my next work of historical fiction. Learn more at www.catherinegentile.com.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

V for Victory by Lissa Evans, a darkly comic tale of WWII London

This darkly comic novel is the third in a loose trilogy, following Crooked Heart (2015) and Old Baggage (2019), and the characters’ backstories are revealed as the plot progresses.

In 1944, London’s neighborhoods lie battered from attacks by German bombers. Known as an efficient Hampstead landlady, Mrs. Margery Overs is actually an impostor whose real name is Vera (Vee) Sedge, and her 14-year-old “nephew,” Noel, is a former child evacuee she has taken in.

A charmingly sharp lad, Noel cooks for Vee’s lodgers, who tutor him in various subjects. After Vee witnesses a traffic accident, and Noel meets someone who knew his beloved late godmother, their true identities are at risk of being exposed.

Evans excels at portraying war-weary Londoners conducting their lives while death arrives with terrible randomness; among them is air-raid warden Winnie Crowther, whose husband is a prisoner of war. Many are forced to weigh the cost of keeping secrets. The eclectic characters are all uniquely human, and their interactions—there are no dull conversations—make the novel witty and moving.

V for Victory was published by Harper in May in the US, and I'd reviewed it for the April 15 issue of Booklist.  I hadn't read the previous two books, but that proved not to be a problem.

Crooked Heart
 won the ALA's Reading List Award in the historical fiction category in 2016. It tells the story of how Noel ended up living with Vee, and how they become small-time criminals during the Blitz. Old Baggage, set in the late '20s, is the tale of Noel's unofficial godmother, Mattie Simpkin, "a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present" (per the publisher's blurb), a former militant suffragette figuring out what to do with her life now that the vote has been won. Judging by V for Victory, Evans mingles dark humor and serious subjects very well, and her older books promise a similar experience.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Messages in the Air: The Watch House by Bernie McGill, set on Rathlin Island in the late 19th century

The enduring struggle between ancient traditions and modern technology is given a Northern Irish flair in Bernie McGill’s The Watch House.

The setting is Rathlin Island, a rugged, picturesque isle just seven miles from the town of Ballycastle on the mainland. Not having heard of it before, I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about the place and its people through historical fiction.

In 1898, as thirty-year-old Nuala Byrne agrees to wed Ned McQuaid, a tailor nearly twice her age, two foreign engineers arrive on Rathlin to test the capabilities of Guglielmo Marconi’s newest marvel – wireless telegraphy. These subplots quickly intersect.

Just a child when her parents and siblings left for a supposedly better life in Canada, Nuala had cared for her aging grandparents until their deaths and hopes for a stable life with her new husband. She doesn’t realize the Tailor and his crabby sister, Ginny, come as a package deal, or that Ginny will treat her as a drudge. Asked to prepare lunches for Marconi’s associates, she develops a rapport with one of them, Gabriel, who teaches her Morse code – and more.

One can guess how their relationship will develop. The novel opens in April 1899 with a scene of Nuala recovering from childbirth, and Ginny planning to take drastic measures to save her brother from raising an illegitimate child. Her traumatic actions almost put me off the rest of the book, but I kept reading and am glad I did.

This evocative novel centers on the mysteries of communication. Introducing Nuala to the notion of electromagnetic waves using layman’s terms, Gabriel, in the island’s watch house, demonstrates how the technological gadgetry can be made to ring a bell. The concept amazes her: “I shake my head and stare at the empty space between the table and a bell. He is asking me to believe in the invisible…

Likewise, Nuala switches easily between Gaelic and English, though never saw herself as a translator before. Plus, there’s a dark-haired girl at the Tailor’s home that no one but Nuala can see. Maybe Nuala is tuned into a special frequency that lets the dead communicate with her, but she isn’t comfortable talking to anyone about it.

The islanders’ dialogue, and Nuala’s lilting narrative voice, complements the small-town Irish locale, and the ending is both satisfying and unsettling. One character’s impressions of Nuala are so different from the quick-minded, brave woman we’ve come to know that it startles. Some communication gaps just seem too deep to bridge.

The Watch House
 was published in 2018 by Tinder Press in the UK. I've been making a point to read and review more of my own books, even if I've had them for a while, and this is one of them.


Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island Harbour
Credit: Brian O'Neill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Review of The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey, a mystery of 1920s India

The “Bombay prince” is the future Edward VIII, who in November 1921 took a four-month tour of India, one of the many colonial lands he expected to rule one day. Many Indians supporting independence were angry about the visit, which led to calls for boycotts and agitation in the streets.

This historic event is the setting for the third in Sujata Massey’s excellent mysteries of 1920s India featuring Perveen Mistry, the country’s first female solicitor (she’s fictional but based on a real-life figure).

Miss Freny Cuttingmaster, a talented student at Woodburn College, stops by Mistry Law for a legal consultation with Perveen. She and her classmates are required to attend the parade celebrating the Prince of Wales’s arrival in Bombay, but Freny detests what he symbolizes and wants to stay away. Impressed by her principles, Perveen advises her as best she can. Then, on the day of the procession, poor Freny’s body is found on the ground, beneath a balcony on her campus. Was her death suicide-as-protest, a political murder, or something else?

Massey admirably directs a cast of dozens, all with distinct personalities and with a range of religious backgrounds. The amount of cultural information smoothly woven through these pages is astounding and is exhibited via the characters’ interactions. The Cuttingmasters are Parsis, like Perveen, which leads her and her lawyer father, Jamshedji, to advocate for Freny’s distraught parents during the coroner’s inquest and ensure her funeral at Doongerwadi isn’t improperly delayed. Feeling an affinity for their late daughter, Perveen wants to see justice done, but she’s disconcerted by Mr. Cuttingmaster’s abruptness (he’s a tailor, as his name suggests) and tries to act without causing offense. She doesn’t always succeed.

Perveen’s manner feels stiff at times, which she acknowledges; it feels appropriate to her status as a pioneering woman in her field who happens to be separated from an abusive husband. Both on the job and within society, her behavior must be above reproach, plus Jamshedji disapproves of her socializing with men. This includes Colin Sandringham, an English political agent helping to arrange the prince’s itinerary. Readers of the previous book will be happy to see him again. Perveen and Colin had become close during her trip to Satapur, but as for a relationship between them – there be danger ahead, she knows.

Followers of the series should delight in how this book ends, and anyone tempted by mentions of the delicious Indian dishes consumed by the characters can find recipes on the author’s website.

The Bombay Prince was published by Soho in 2021; thanks to the publisher for approving me on NetGalley.

Monday, September 20, 2021

My notebook and I got drenched and my story was born: an essay by Joanna FitzPatrick, author of The Artist Colony

Joanna FitzPatrick, whose latest novel The Artist Colony is published this month by She Writes Press, is here today with an essay about the research which inspired her fiction.

~

"My notebook and I got drenched and my story was born"
Joanna FitzPatrick

For me, born to travel, research takes me on a journey into the past, and that's why I love writing historical fiction. And it's a journey packed with surprises. Final destination unknown.

After writing an historical novel based on the letters and journals of the short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, which required a strict adherence to her biographical point of view, I looked forward to wandering freely into my next historical novel, creating new characters, and this time I wanted to write a mystery.

After you find an era that appeals to you, mine is the 1920s, one of the joys of research is intentionally falling down rabbit holes to find out everything you can about your subject: Prohibition, women's voting rights, rum runners, suffragettes, artists and artist colonies are some of my favorite subjects. And I feel a tremendous responsibility to my readers to thoroughly know these historical facts before I build a story around them.

As you can tell, I love reading history, but as a fiction writer the real exhilaration comes when I resuscitate history through the characters I create and then let them loose to see how they will behave.

One pathway in my research led me to the history of Asian communities in Monterey. The more I read about how these migrants were punished for their self-reliance and determination to make a good life for themselves in America, I knew my historical novel wouldn't be complete without including their powerful, but tragic voices.

In my research into the Portuguese whalers' and immigrant fishermen's stories, I was particularly intrigued by the Japanese abalone divers, which led me to the amas, women divers who also became characters in my novel.

Once I had embedded myself in Monterey's history, it was time to close those weighty books and head out to where that history took place.

As I entered the creaky wooden door into Whalers Cabin at Point Lobos, I felt my story take hold of me. Whalers Cabin was originally built in the mid-1800s and is currently a historical museum with artifacts and photographs of the many people who came to Monterey from long distances and settled on these shores.

Later, standing outside under the canopy of an ancient cypress, I thought, what if . . . and my plot began to percolate. My imagination on fire, pencil in hand, my fingers wrote down my ideas as quickly as I came up with them.

In my own cloud, I wasn't aware of the approaching storm until the heavy clouds burst overhead. It was my first shoreline squall and its dramatic energy added to my own excitement. While my notebook and I got drenched, my story was born.

When the sun broke through and the rain stopped as quickly as it had started, I took the trail outside Whalers Cabin to the unmarked Kodani Village. Gennosuke Kodani, a Japanese abalone diver, made his home on a bluff above Whalers Cove and he caught and canned abalone for a lucrative international market. His Pacific Grove Cannery was built on the opposite side of his village. There are no remnants left of the Kodani Village. But there are sepia photographs of his home, guest houses, bunk rooms, and Japanese women drying abalone on racks. It was easy to put my character Sarah on the bluff watching the women work and smelling the stinky abalones.

Reading history is not always a delicious piece of cake. Historical facts can be heartbreaking when doors open into the past where dark forces are released. In my research, horrible facts were exposed that rattled my strong belief in justice for all. These facts could not be ignored. My characters would have to work through the rampant racism in their own community–to ignore these facts would be a different story.

I went back to the drawing board and expanded my research to our country's treatment of Asian immigrants during the early 20th century so I could better understand the blatant discrimination in this idyllic artist colony on the Pacific shore. These facts would force my characters to question their own humanity. And because of this expanded research, what started out as a plot-driven mystery became a character-driven historical novel with an element of mystery.

I had started The Artist Colony journey before the COVID-19 pandemic, but as I was working on the last revisions, events took place outside my writing studio that linked my hundred-year-old story to the racial discrimination happening today.

I know I don't have the power to change the course of history, but perhaps the readers of The Artist Colony might choose to question their own humanity so that a writer a hundred years from now won't be telling the same story I wrote, because it's true: Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.

~

Joanna FitzPatrick
(credit: Michelle Magdalena)
Joanna FitzPatrick
was raised in Hollywood. She started her writing habit by applying her orange fountain pen and a wild imagination to screenplays, which led her early on to produce the film White Lilacs and Pink Champagne. Accepted at Sarah Lawrence College, she wrote her MFA thesis Sha La La: Live for Today about her life as a rock ’n’ roll star’s wife. Her more recent work includes two novels, Katherine Mansfield, Bronze Winner of the 2021 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in Historical Fiction, and The Drummer’s Widow. The Artist Colony is her third book. Presently, FitzPatrick divides her time between a cottage by the sea in Pacific Grove, California and a hameau in rural southern France where she begins all her book projects. Find her online here:

Author website: www.joannafitzpatrick.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/JoannaFitzPatrickauthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Fitzpatrick_jo
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/joannafitzpatrick.author/