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.

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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.