Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I came at reading Geraldine Brooks in rather a backwards fashion. I started with March, followed by People of the Book and am only now getting to Year of Wonders, Brooks’ first novel. The friend who recommended it described the story as “a book about the plague with some romance thrown in.” With that description in mind, I expected more romance than delivered. Not that less romance is a bad thing, I was just surprised at the outcome of the story.
Backing up, the plot of Year of Wonders revolves around a small northern English town that isolates itself during an outbreak of the Plague to avoid spreading it to neighboring communities. As surprising as it sounds, the story emerged from an actual historical account of an early modern town which did exactly that. The protagonist of the story is the rector’s housekeeper, Anna Frith. The reader learns in the first few pages that she and the rector, Michael Mompellion, are two of the survivors of the attack who remain in the, physically and emotionally, diminished village. Most of the story backtracks and follows the characters through the year of disease, eventually coming full circle so the story meets where it left off at the beginning.
In the Afterward Brooks describes her transition from journalist to novelist, fascinated by understanding the story of the historical Derbyshire village. Brooks’ research skills shine through as her descriptions of the lifestyle and times are apt. At times her graphic imagery leaves too little to the imagination, but given the subject matter it is not surprising. Brooks does acknowledge her choice of a strong female character who sits outside the bounds of traditional society as her focus. In Brooks’ mind the story needed someone who could break the confines of social norms and was in an ability to do so.
I could see common interests in Brooks’ three novels; her work focuses on strong female leads. She takes these characters and places them in nearly impossible (yet historically real) situations to unearth how their strengths allow them to persevere. I enjoy her plots but mostly her development of the issue of integrity.
Year of Wonders reminded me of reading Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book. The comparison is obvious considering they both focus on the Plague. But the similarities are not merely that straight forward. Like Brooks, Willis writes about the strength and wherewithal to survive adversity and horrible odds. If you haven’t read Year of Wonders and don’t mind descriptive imagery of the Plague, this is a book worth reading. If you’re not so into the Plague, I would still recommend Geraldine Brooks – one of her other stories may be more palatable.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Jenny White's first novel in the Kamil Pasha series, The Sultan's Seal, was far and away one of my favorite books this year. White has the uncanny ability of imparting a ton of knowledge about the Ottoman Empire, a subject of which she is well versed, without lecturing or falling into a litany of facts. The plot remains the most important aspect of the book.
The Abyssinian Proof, White's second entry in the nineteenth-century mystery series, tells a nuanced story of a little-known religious group living in the middle of Ottoman Istanbul. The information White has at hand about this leftover Byzantine Christian sect is fascinating. There was a tenuous moment when the story veered into a mention of Templars and I feared White had fallen into the trap of writing another derivative Christianity gone bad novel, à la Dan Brown. But, she saved herself and didn't go there. Thank goodness.
It is easy to lose oneself in White’s novels. She tells a compelling story with plenty of interesting twists and intrigues to keep me reading. The mystery is not overly straight-forward but she does throw in clues throughout to keep me guessing. However, White is also knows her history. She is not writing about stereotypes and overused characteristics of the Ottoman Empire. Her depth of knowledge allows me to learn relevant, genuine historical information within the scope of a fictional story.
Moreover, White tends to throw in some subtle social commentary about our own world. The intrigue between the Christians, the Muslims, and the Jews; the distrust of differing religious beliefs; the debate over political and cultural power based on ethnicity all ring as remarkably true today as they did 150 years ago. White manages to point out that the Ottoman Muslims were not some evil religious offshoot with nothing but bloodlust in their hearts. Her characters are somewhat universal.
I look to disappear into my books. But I don’t mind learning something along the way. Jenny White is one of the best current authors who allows me to do both of those things at the same time. I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for the third book in the series. (Oh, and I heard a rumor she may attempt to discuss the Armenian Genocide in a future story. That would capture plenty of attention.)