There has long been a fashion to write in the literary style of times gone by: to invoke it at best and to merely copy it at worst. A bad pastiche in a Dickensian approach or a poor effort to reproduce the rhythms and texture of a Conan Doyle - it's not very satisfying for a reader and it begs the question: why would one bother?
When such an effort goes well, and in this case it goes surpassingly well, the question is answered: because it sheds light on an era from a modern frame of mind. Because it is exquisite to read something that reflects a time period flawlessly and lets us see it in a new light.
Charlotte Morrison is the spinster sister of clergyman Charles, sister-in-law to Marion and aunt to Ellie. The family have undertaken a summer tour of the Rhine, stopping in a variety of towns along the way.
Charlotte has been left a legacy by the elderly reverend for whom she kept house for 20 years, and one of the many questions is: what will she do with the possibility of freedom? Will she seek to live independently or will she continue as she does on this journey, endlessly deferring to her passively controlling brother and his wife and hopelessly daydreaming of a lost love? Will she continue to succumb to the fear that she pretends is safety and familial love?
Fear threads its way throughout the novel, so subtly that it is not until one is very near the end that it reveals itself to be the impetus for almost every action taken by each character. Fear of the unknown as it relates to the journey is the least of it: fear of change, fear of truth, fear of death, fear of life - Schlee has masterfully woven doubts and dreads from the past and the present that are projecting themselves on the future.
She weaves the thoughts and reactions seamlessly in and out of reality until we don't know where we stand, we don't know what is true and what is not, and it is utterly riveting.
Set in 1851, the year falls squarely between Austen and Forster and the narrative mirrors both, marrying the severely circumscribed possibilities of a woman in Victorian society with the stiff formality and condescension of the English abroad.
Schlee takes a dimmer view of the possibilities open to Charlotte than Austen did of Elizabeth Bennett and makes the latter's story look like a spurious fairy tale.
This is an acerbic yet desperately moving story, and one that we are lucky has been reissued in digital format.
It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1981 but it went out of print; happily, the new technology now allows those of us who missed it the first time round to make up for lost time.
Bello has released two other titles - The Proprietor and The Time In Aderra - and I look forward with eagerness to reading those two.
Adrian Wolfe is the head of a massive extended family that he has created through his inability to stay faithful: two ex-wives, one present wife and five children, all of whom seem to be functioning as the ideal blended family. That is, until third wife Maya is killed in an accident and the shaky foundations of Adrian's shambolic structure start to wobble. Was it an accident? What about those bullying emails she hid from everyone - could they have spurred her to take her life?
As the mystery unravels, so does the Wolfe clan. This gets quite tedious about two thirds of the way in, and while the conclusion is satisfying the tension was all but gone at the end.
Jewell is terrific at character development, at constructing her story with the perfect balance between prose and dialogue. In terms of this, she's one of the best contemporary women's fiction authors.
An unevenness of tone mars this often engaging novel. Alice Willoughby is an orphan many times over: her mother died in childbirth in India, she lost her Aya when her strait-laced father objected to Alice's native ways and said father was lost to cholera two years later. Left with her strange and fairly creepy aunt, the sinister aspects of her new life unfold, intermingling with mythological Indian tales. The contrast between Alice's decidedly un-fairytale-like existence and the stories of Shiva and Parvati is the point; however, there is not a sense of effortless flow in the structure, and it make the reading of it hard going indeed.
Lady Lilith, on the death of her father the Duke of Radnor, takes on the mantle as Head Witch of the Lazarus Coven. Set in 1913, the era is of course Edwardian and yet the tone of this seems to be reaching farther back, trying to be Gothic.
Despite having been trained and capable of taking on her new role of the secret society she bungles the whole business because of her love for a non-witch starving artist.
Despite its intriguing subject matter, this wasn't very dramatic at all.
As fond as I am of this genre, I was surprised that I hadn't read anything by this extraordinarily popular author.
I wasn't impressed with this. Grace is the wife of a famous author who is a rageaholic; she lives in fear of his mood swings and, despite appearances, their enviable life is of course anything but that.
A series of events shows up the cracks in the facade; various predictable plot points carry us through to the end. There was little suspense in large part due to the fact that this novel eschewed the "show, don't tell" dictum almost comically: it was like reading an outline for a novel rather than an actual story. Disappointed.