writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Genre: Historical Fiction

REVIEW: The Pull of the Stars (Emma Donoghue)

The Pull of the Stars book cover

Three days in the life of Julia Power, a maternity nurse in a Dublin hospital overwhelmed by patients at the peak of the Great Flu.

The Pull of the Stars is another excellent novel from Emma Donoghue. Her level of research is impressive, as always, but it never overwhelms the humanity of her characters or the emotion of her chosen subjects. I was a little reluctant to read a novel about a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic, but there are moments of hope woven in that speak as much to the current crisis as they do to the grief and fear felt in 1918.  I will say that this isn’t a happy novel, so if you’re seeking something light with a happy ending to escape from the weight of the world right now, I’d suggest you put this one aside for a few months.

While the writing in The Pull of the Stars is always clear and well-crafted, I struggled a lot at first with the lack of quotation marks. Their absence adds to the immediacy of the novel’s action, but it took me about half the book to adjust to the technique and, in the meantime, I was often taken out of the action by my inability to identify whether a sentence was speech (and, if so, who was saying it). I can be a bit slow with this sort of thing, so I’m sure other readers will adapt almost immediately.

I also found that my enjoyment of the book waned a little for the last of the four parts. I loved the first three sections and felt like there was a good mix of realistic sadness and of lighter moments that helped it not to feel ceaselessly depressing. The final part takes away much of what made the earlier sections hopeful, however, and the replacement felt a bit like an eradication of queerness so that the protagonist could take up the pure duty of motherhood in a world where women are expected to show their love for their husbands by bearing them a dozen children.

This is a personal reaction, as a lesbian who is really struggling with the bleakness of the world right now, and I acknowledge that there is an enormous difference between a straight author employing these negative queer tropes and a lesbian author doing the same. The final part doesn’t take away from the great writing in the novel as a whole—it just made me wish that I had delayed reading it until a time when I didn’t need to seek hope in fiction due to a lack of it in the real world.

Book Review: The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers, by Kerri Turner

The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers book cover

The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is set in Russia between 1914 and 1920, which means that it documents not just the end of the Imperial Russian Ballet, but also the end of the Romanovs themselves. It was a period of great upheaval for Russia, and for all those affected by the Great War, but Kerri Turner manages to create a narrow focus for a reader’s attention so that the weight of historical detail doesn’t become too overwhelming.

Her two main characters are Luka—a newcomer to the Imperial Russian Ballet—and Valentina, who has been in the company longer, but shares Luka’s modest upbringing. While both interact with actual historical people, such as Rasputin and the Romanovs, the peripheral nature of their involvement means that the reader can sympathise with them more readily, even faced with displays of wealth and indulgence while the working classes starve. Here, Luka’s guilt about his position of privilege works to reassure a modern audience where perhaps Valentina’s enjoyment of wealth does not. I think I would have enjoyed a little more of an evolution in Valentina’s nature, but her character is likely more realistic as is!

I am not a great reader of modern (that is, in terms of publication, not setting) adult romance, so I was a little worried from the blurb that this novel would be heavy on the romance and light on the history. On the whole, I need not have worried. There was a section in the middle of the book where the romance took centre stage for a while, but most of the time I was happily immersed in history and ballet.

The descriptions of dance and the world of the performing arts are where Turner’s writing is at its most exciting and emotive. Her own experiences as a dancer and dance teacher inform the novel wonderfully and, while the passion of the romantic relationship may have failed to thrill me, the passion for dance seemed almost tangible. I’m not a dancer, but I understand the love of one’s artform, and I thought this was conveyed wonderfully throughout the book.

Overall, The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is an excellent debut from Kerri Turner and I look forward to her future publications.

(Thank you to Harlequin Books for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.

Review: Bereft, Chris Womersley

This is an excellent book and a powerful – if not at all times enjoyable – read. There is a poetic feel to the language and a tangibility to the landscapes in which the novel is set. While not getting caught up in description, Womersley still manages to paint a vivid scene inside the reader’s head. The storyline is fairly simple, yet placed against the backdrop of the Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic, its tragedy is emphasised. A slight hint of magic realism adds to the book’s overall feel of otherworldliness.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Bereft through Goodreads FirstReads, and I think it’s the perfect example of why FirstReads is such a fantastic thing to be able to be a part of. Of my own accord, I possibly would never have picked this book up, because I don’t read a lot of modern non-genre fiction. But I really would have missed out, if that were the case, because Bereft is a wonderful book that was an absolute pleasure to read.

Warning: There is one scene involving an animal death that I found upsetting.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Waste Land – Simon Acland

On the whole, I found The Waste Land to be a very enjoyable read. Acland presents himself as being well-versed in the era during which the novel is set. It’s not my own period of historical expertise, but his universe felt authentic and meshed with my knowledge of earlier and later times. A bibliography is always a wonderful thing to see at the end of an historical novel, both because it provides a jumping-off point for further reading and because it suggests that a good level of research went into ensuring a good level of historical accuracy.

That said, one doesn’t need to be a history buff to appreciate this book. Acland’s writing style is quite formal throughout the novel, but accessible nonetheless, and the setting of the first crusade is one that lends itself to sword-wielding adventure. His protagonist is both sympathetic and likeable, and Acland surrounds him with a cast of well-drawn characters. The villains are suitably villainous and the heroes are pleasantly fallible.

The plot was not what I first expected it to be, but at no point did I find myself bored with the story and the ending left me mulling over the books entirety for quite some time.

My key difficulty with The Waste Land was the stylistic choice to place a story within a story. The segments set in the modern era are witty caricatures of types anyone with a knowledge of academia will recognise but, to me, they came to feel like unwelcome intrusions upon the story that I actually cared about. I understand that this format is what sets the novel aside from other historical works, but feel that the main story holds its own without the need to jolt the reader out of the action at the end of every chapter.

Despite this, however, I think that the book is a very good addition to the historical genre and would be most interested to see where Hugh de Verdon ends up in the sequel.

(I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.)

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