Feed on
Posts
Comments

“Every time he saw the bomboys set off with a canoe full of slaves, he thought of his father standing on the shores of the Cape Coast Castle, ready to receive them. On this shore, watching the canoe push off, Quey brimmed with the same shame that accompanied each slave departure. What had his father felt on his shore [when they had arrived]?….Was it the same mix of fear and shame and loathing that Quey felt for his own flesh, his mutinous desire?” – thoughts of Quey, son of Effia Otcher and James Collins, British governor of the colony.

cover homegoingIn a novel which is both emotionally intimate and broad in its scope and thematic impact, this debut novel by twenty-six-year-old Ya’a Gyasi, formerly of Ghana, truly deserves its description as an “epic.” The young recipient of NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year last year for Homegoing, the much lauded Gyasi was today awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best Debut Novel of 2016, for this same novel. She had come to the U.S. from Ghana at a young age and grew up here, but she returned to Ghana for the first time during her sophomore year in college primarily to do research for a novel. Instead, she found the experience much more personal and affecting than she expected as she gained new insights into who she is and where she came from, insights which ultimately changed her life. As she was touring the Cape Coast Castle in which, long ago British governors and the local women they married lived comfortable lives, Gyasi confesses that she was stunned by the contrast between life in those “upstairs” rooms and in the rooms of the dungeon beneath the castle.  There twenty or more women per cell, about to be shipped out as slaves, spent their last painful days in Africa before going through the Door of No Return and entering the cargo holds of the ships taking them to America to be sold.

author photoOpening her novel in the mid-1700s, Gyasi recreates the tumult of what is now Ghana as the Fante tribes from the coastal area and the Asante (Ashanti) tribes from inland constantly battle each other for power, a task complicated by the fact that the British have occupied the coastal areas so that they can manage the lucrative shipping of slaves to America. Anyone captured by an enemy soldier, of either tribe, is destined to be sold to the British for export, and when the inland Asante also steal large amounts of guns and ammunition from the British and escape inland, the whole social fabric changes. The opening chapters, which establish this background, also introduce the first of eight generations reflected in the lives of two families: the descendants of the beautiful Effia, born in Fanteland, and the descendants of Esi, her half-sister, an Asante royal whom she does not know. While Effia strikes the fancy of James Collins, governor of the colony, who marries her and brings her to the beautiful Cape Coast Castle where he lives and works, Esi becomes just another anonymous voice that Effia hears emerging from the floors below her – in the dungeons. Esi is eventually shipped to America, living out the sad history of slavery and its aftermath, while Effia and her descendants remain in Ghana.

The Cape Coast Castle, on the southern coast of Ghana, is located just southwest of Saltpond.

The Cape Coast Castle, on the southern coast of Ghana, is located here just southwest of Saltpond. The Fante tribes lives along this coast.  Click to enlarge.

As the generations tell their stories, the full talent of this author becomes clear. Each section, named for the main character of the section, alternates with a later chapter from the same time period and a new character from the other, parallel family. Gyasi shows her talents for characterization by establishing qualities for these characters which allow the reader to understand and often identify with them. Quey, son of Effia and James Collins, is a man who could pass for white and who has been educated in England and then returned to Ghana where he no longer fits in. His other-family counterpart is Ness, daughter of Esi, who leads a hard life picking cotton in America and who eventually marries Sam and has a baby, for whom they sacrifice all. The images from this section permeate much of the overall action of the novel, and the dedication of the parents to their child cannot be overestimated. Gyasi makes them come alive, and though they are symbols of slavery and of the harsh world imposed by the powerful upon the weak, they feel more like real people than symbols, however powerful the symbolism may be.

Cape Coast Castle. Click to enlarge.

Cape Coast Castle. Click to enlarge.

Characters’ goals change over the generations. One person, James, son of Quey, eventually decides to follow love and abandon the obligations imposed upon him as the son of Fante royalty to become a farmer in a new village. Kojo, Ness’s son in America, is a freeman living with a sympathetic family whose house is a stop on the Underground Railway. His son H, though also “free,” illustrates the problems of someone who has to sell himself to work in the mines for ten years in order to support a family, not much different from those who are owned by “masters.” The Civil War has not made much positive difference in their lives, at this point, and those who have to work the mines are vulnerable to severe health problems. The development of unions and the use of strikes as a weapon lead to a terrible form of undeclared civil war, with the mine owners using weapons to maintain their control.

The Door of No Return

The Door of No Return

When some of the characters end up in New York and Harlem in the twentieth century, trying to support themselves as housekeepers, singers in jazz clubs, or drug dealers, the events make direct connections with contemporary readers. Some characters begin to think of returning to Africa, their roots, not because they have any memories of Africa, but because they believe it must be more conducive to a “real” life than what they have found in the US. As the time period becomes more up to date, the last two generations merge, as each of the final characters represents one of the two families which have been traced for so many generations. Each must decide whether to revisit the past, mostly unknown, or stay put and face the future there.

Throughout, Gyasi incorporates elements common to great, majestic novels in this highly compressed epic of black lives and struggles. The continuing symbol of a black stone necklace belonging to the first generations of the novel and continuing to the present adds a kind of elegance and sense of continuity which grounds the novel for eight generations.   Folk stories, legends which evolve about some characters, the fears created by dreams and vague family memories, and the persistent drive to be successful while lacking a true understanding of themselves and their past make this novel “speak” to a modern audience, regardless of race or color.  A novel so broad, universal, and effective makes one wonder what Ya’a Gyasi can possibly do as an encore after this novel.

Note:  This CNN video features President Obama visiting the Cape Coast Castle with Anderson Cooper:

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from https://www.penguin.co.uk/

The map of Ghana, showing the Asante and Fante areas appears on http://www.africanworldheritagesites.org/

The wonderful photo of Cape Coast Castle is featured on https://nicoleinghana.wordpress.com/

The Door of No Return led to the waterfront and the British ships taking captives to America.  http://africancelebs.com/

The CNN video of Anderson Cooper and President Obama is on Youtube.

HOMEGOING
REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Epic Novel, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Ya'a Gyasi
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Date Published: 06/07/2016
ISBN: 978-1101947135
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

 

Paulo Coelho–THE SPY

Note: Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has sold more than two hundred million books worldwide. Published in eighty-one languages, he is, according to his publisher, “the most translated living author in the world.”

“There was never any concrete evidence against me – only documents that had been tampered with – but you will never publicly admit that you allowed an innocent woman to die. Innocent? Perhaps that is not the right word. I was never innocent, [but] I thought I could manipulate those who wanted state secrets…In the end, I was the one manipulated…convicted of espionage even though the only thing concrete I traded was the gossip from high-society salons…I never revealed anything new.” –Mata Hari to her lawyer, M. Clunet.

One of tcover coelho spyhe legends of World War I, Mata Hari has been, for over a hundred years, a symbol of mystery, excitement, and danger. Her exotic life and her eventual fate – an early morning execution by a firing squad of French soldiers on October 15, 1917 – has always felt somehow “deserved” by a woman who so craved attention that she publicly flouted every norm of society in order to develop a reputation as an erotic dancer and lover, and who was eventually declared a spy by the French government. Fearless in her private life and pragmatic enough to realize, as she was approaching age forty, that she was not as supple – or as slim – as she once had been, she eventually accepted a six month contract to perform in Berlin in 1916, seeing this change of location as an opportunity for new rewards and wider opportunities. The big question raised by this novel is whether her various liaisons in Germany and France provided her with opportunities to share real secrets or whether she was merely a scapegoat, conveying the society gossip of the day, as she has claimed. When she left Germany precipitously in an attempt to return to Paris in 1917, the French declared her a German spy trying to re-enter. Whether this is true has never been fully answered.

author photoAuthor Paulo Coelho gives life to her story by dividing his novel into three parts, and though each part deals with a different aspect of Mata Hari’s earlier life, each also provides her commentary on her current conditions as a prisoner. Jumping around in time, the opening Prologue begins with the execution of Mata Hari, on October 15, 1917, vibrantly conveying the thinking of this woman, an entertainer with a reputation to “protect,” at the same time that it also illustrates her incredulity that she has not been pardoned, as she has expected. For the week before her execution, she writes her memoirs for her daughter, back in her native Holland, so that her daughter will know something about her mother. Part I, which follows, tells of her early life as Margaretha Zelle, a Dutch schoolgirl, her marriage to an abusive, older husband when she is eighteen, her move to Java and her later return to Holland, and her eventual decision to abandon Holland secretly and head to Paris alone.

mara hari dance

Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils

Part II recreates the excitement she generates as a “Javanese dancer” with an exotic, Eastern background, as she performs in Paris for people who believe that she is a genuine native of the Dutch East Indies. Guided by Emile Guimet, the founder of the Musee Guimet, she raises her “traditional” dancing to an art form at a time in which Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils is also becoming a hit in Paris. She meets and bewitches artists like Picasso and Modigliani, and seduces a large number of aristocrats and patrons. Part III, by contrast, is her final commentary on  her life and trial, her belief that she has had the wrong lawyer to defend her, and her unyielding conviction that there cannot be anything in her dossier that could possibly be incriminating and that she will therefore be exonerated. As she readies herself for her execution, she betrays no nervousness, behaving as if she is getting ready for the most important party of her life.

Mata Hari

Mata Hari

Within this unusual framework – and a conclusion known from the first page – author Coelho manages to keep the reader curious about the most important aspects of Mata Hari’s life and eventual death. Few readers will claim that they come to know Mata Hari here, as she greatly values her independence and trusts no one. Ironically, the person with whom she makes one of the few connections in her life is the wife of her patron, Monsieur Guimet, who gives her early advice: “Never fall in love. Love is a poison…Love sweeps everything you are from the face of the earth and in its place leaves only what your beloved wants you to be.”  But Mata Hari is relatively discreet in her sexual behavior, and she tends to regard her affairs as a duty unrelated to her feelings. Mme. Guimet’s second piece of advice is simply that “Life is very complicated. What’s simple is wanting an ice cream [or] a doll, [winning] a game..[or] wanting to be famous, but staying that way for more than a month or a year, especially when that fame is linked to one’s body, is what is hard.” Mata Hari, always pragmatic, understands, as she ages, that her opportunities are becoming more limited, a factor in her acceptance of the contract in Berlin when she is nearly forty and unable to find work in Paris.

new of deathOn her way to Germany by train, she has a chance to evaluate her life at this turning point, seeing herself as completely different from all the other women in that train car: “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravaged by humanity’s poverty of spirit. I was a swan among ducks who refused to grow up, fearing the unknown.” As she looks at the man accompanying her to Berlin, she realizes, however, that “I was under his control, he no longer had to answer anything. [What] I had to do was dance and dance, even if I was no longer as flexible as I was before.” She knows she can always use the same trick she used when first arriving in Paris, “Show them something exotic…and the [audience], always eager for something new, will certainly believe it,” at least for a little while. Ambitious and hard-working, in her way, Mata Hari also acts without much thought, and that ignorance may have been her undoing. The Epilogue, which details the aftereffects of Mata Hari’s execution, deserves careful reading, and it is stunning in its revelations about her accuser, the French prosecutor, the government with its censorship, and the “deductions, extrapolations, and assumptions” made during the proceedings which affected the trial’s outcome. This reader, at least, will no longer regard “Mata Hari” as a “femme fatale” whose life’s outcome came about as a result of her own choices.

mh execution

Wearing a long, fur-trimmed coat and a large hat to hide her tousled hair, Mata Hari faces her executioners. Her hands are not tied, and she does not wear a blindfold. Two nuns and a priest are on the far right of this photo.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from https://continuousreader.blogspot.com

Mata Hari dances Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils:  http://www.radikal.com

Mata Hari as a “lady,” dressed for an evening with elegant friends:  http://www.biography.com

News of Mata Hari’s execution:  http://milhomme.blogspot.com

Photo of the execution by firing squad:  Mata Hari dresses in a fur-trimmed coat and wears a large hat to hide her tousled hair.  She is not blindfolded, at her own request, and her hands are not tied.  http://margaretperry.org/

THE SPY
REVIEW. Biography, Book Club Suggestions, Brazil, France, Historical, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Paulo Coelho
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 11/22/2017
ISBN: 978-1524732066
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Benjamin Black is the pseudonym used by award-winning Irish author John Banville for his mystery series.

“[Quirke] had no illusions that the world could be set to rights, at least by him, who could not even set right his own life. What drove him, he believed, was the absence of a past. When he looked back…to his earliest days, there was only a blank space. He didn’t know who he was, where he came from, who had fathered him, who his mother had been. He could almost see himself, a child standing alone in the midst of a vast, bare plain, with nothing behind him but darkness and storm.”

cover even the dead

For the past ten years, award-winning Irish author John Banville has been writing crime novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black, in addition to his literary fiction under his own name. Of the nine novels he has written as Black during that time, one, The Lemur, is a stand-alone set in contemporary New York; The Black-Eyed Blonde, written in the style of Raymond Chandler, also a stand-alone, stars Philip Marlowe; and the remaining seven novels feature an alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin named Quirke. Quirke has had a sad life from his earliest years, having spent time in an orphanage before he was unofficially adopted by Judge Garret Griffin, and brought into his household to live with an adoptive brother Malachi Griffin, who also became a physician in later life. In his mid-forties when he appears in Christine Falls, the first novel in the series, Quirke has never come to terms with who he is because he does not know who he is.

Benjamin Black

Benjamin Black

Though he learns some facts about his background in the first book in the series, Christine Falls (in which he must challenge his existing relationship with both Judge Griffin and his brother Malachy Griffin), and learns other details of his background in the second novel, The Silver Swan, Quirke never learns all he wants or needs to know in these or other, later novels. By Even the Dead, the seventh novel, Quirke knows that Phoebe is his really his daughter, though she has been brought up as his brother Malachy’s daughter. Ten years have passed since this series started, and Quirke still has questions about his past. Now single and lonely, he has tried to take each day as it comes, sometimes relying on alcohol for help.

The Gresham Hotel in the 1950s, where Hackett enjoyed having lunches in a sunny window.

The Gresham Hotel in the 1950s, where Hackett enjoyed having lunches in a sunny, dining room window.  Photo by John Hinde.

As this novel opens, Quirke, the chief of the pathology lab, has been on a leave of absence from the Hospital of the Holy Family, receiving treatment for his alcohol addiction and related emotional problems. Young David Sinclair, only thirty-four, also a pathologist and the boyfriend of Phoebe, has been standing in for Quirke at the hospital, and may have his eyes on Quirke’s position. When Sinclair comes to visit Quirke and asks him to come to the lab to examine the body of a young man killed in a car crash, however, Quirke leaves the house for the first time in over two months. At the lab, he recognizes that the dent in the victim’s skull could not have occurred from the accident itself, and he decides to call on his old friend throughout the series, Inspector Hackett of the police department, who is having lunch at the Gresham Hotel, a special treat in which Hackett occasionally indulges. The contrast between Hackett’s thoughts at lunch and those of the ailing Quirke have never been more obvious, but Quirke is finally out of the house and in action for the first time in months.

The Alvis TC108, a gem once owned by Quirke, who "had crashed [it] and let it topple over the side of a cliff into the sea."

The elegant Alvis TC108, a gem once owned by Quirke, who “had crashed [it] and let it topple over the side of a cliff into the sea,” one of his terrible memories.

Though it is easy to speed through these introductory pages in an effort to get to the plot, it is the information which Quirke reveals about himself and his condition which deserves the most attention, especially here at the beginning. “There were times when his brain clanked to a halt, like a steam train stopping, at night, in the middle of nowhere. He knew it wasn’t possible not to think, that the mind was always active, even in sleep…but at the end of these blank episodes, when the poor old engine started up again, he would try to grope his way backwards to that dark halting place and find out what had been going on there, often with little success.” Frequently despondent, he admits that “I seem hardly alive…I hear myself talking sometimes and think it must be someone else saying these things…I still get headaches and the odd blank second or two.…It’s the fuzziness that gets me down, the sense of groping through a fog. That, and the uncertainty…that I’ll ever be better than I am now.” It is his friend Hackett, both a foil for him and a true friend, who encourages him to get involved now, even though Quirke’s mind wanders and he loses his train of thought even while talking with Hackett. Ancient images sometimes come to him, unbidden, as he and Hackett discuss the case of the young man in the accident.

Phoebe meets "Lisa" at the a park bench in St. Stephen's Green, when Lisa asks for help in hiding from enemies.

Phoebe meets “Lisa” at a park bench at the pond in St. Stephen’s Green, when Lisa asks for help in hiding from enemies.

The plot develops in the same pattern as in previous novels, and with many of the same characters. Phoebe gets some attention in this novel for her work for Dr. Evelyn Blake, a psychiatrist, a job which stimulates her desire to do similar work herself. When Phoebe suddenly receives a message from “Lisa Smith,” a young woman she hardly knows, she is actually energized. She meets Lisa as requested in St. Stephen’s Green, and learns that the trembling Lisa is desperate to find a place to hide – and there really is no one else available to help her. With Phoebe’s aid, Lisa escapes to a “safe house,” and though the reasons for Lisa’s fear are not clear at first, the reader soon understands that Phoebe was right in trying to help. There is a direct connection between Lisa and the young man in the accident that Quirke has just begun investigating, and when Lisa later turns up missing, many of the past themes and plots of earlier books begin to overlap here, including some of the issues of Christine Falls. The victim of the car accident, it turns out, was also investigating the issue of the adoption (for a price) of Irish children of unwed mothers and the collusion of the Catholic church, the police, and the government.

Quirke, Phoebe, and Dr. Blake walk past this church one evening, Quirke suddenly certain of his destination.

Quirke, Phoebe, and Dr. Blake walk past the “Pepper Canister” Church one evening, as Quirke suddenly becomes certain of his destination.

Many peripheral issues also appear:  the love lives of both Phoebe and Quirke; more information about Quirke’s background; the health problems of Malachy Griffin, Quirke’s adoptive brother, and the health problems of Quirke himself; the political morass of Dublin in the 1950s, with some “untouchables” working in the courts, the church, and government; and the abiding sense of guilt, created by the priesthood.  Ultimately, I began to wonder if Black might be getting ready to end the Quirke series, as he seems to be closing out some of the long-running questions that have kept this series going. By the novel’s conclusion, Quirke knows much more about his own parentage, and he gets some measure of revenge for the horrors of the past.   Quirke has good reason to worry about his health, but he also appears to be looking to some new and happier directions for the future – and he is a survivor. We should know his fate before long, as there is certain to be at least one more novel.

ALSO by Benjamin Black:  BLACK-EYED BLONDE,      CHRISTINE FALLS (Quirke),       DEATH IN SUMMER (Quirke)    THE SILVER SWAN (Quirke),   VENGEANCE (Quirke),

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.abc.es/

The Gresham Hotel, 1950s, photo by John Hinde Item# PMK72570, http://www.playle.com

The beautiful Alvis TC108 Super Graber, a car once owned by Quirke, became one of his terrible memories when he “crashed [it] and let it topple over the side of a cliff into the sea.”  http://only-carz.com

A park bench overlooking the pond at St. Stephen’s Green, is the place where “Lisa” met Phoebe, begging for help in finding a place to stay where she would be safe.  https://www.pinterest.com

The “Pepper Canister Church,” named for the shape of its steeple, may be found here:  http://www.dublintherapist.ie/

EVEN THE DEAD
REVIEW. Ireland and Northern Ireland, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Benjamin Black
Published by: Picador
Date Published: 01/03/2017
ISBN: 978-1250117878
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

 

NOTE:  The second of the “Quirke series” by Benjamin Black (the pen name used by renowned author John Banville for his mystery novels), The Silver Swan (2008) follows Christine Falls (2007).  At present (January, 2017) there are seven Quirke novels in this series, which is set in the 1950s. Quirke’s complex personal story unfolds very slowly in the background during these seven novels, some of it especially important to understanding him, though it is referenced, but not usually explained, in subsequent novels.  I am therefore reposting these early reviews because they introduce key information in Quirke’s life, important to know in later novels, including Even the Dead, published on Jan. 3, 2017 and also reviewed here.

“Everywhere he turned in the business of Deirdre Hunt, things that had seemed substantial evaporated into smoke and air, and what had appeared open and inviting entryways were suddenly slammed shut in his face.”

silver swan

Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, began an intriguing mystery series in 2007 with Christine Falls, featuring Quirke, a pathologist at the Hospital of the Holy Family in Dublin.  Quirke often finds himself called upon to do more than a pathologist is usually required to do, and in this second novel in the series, he is visited by Billy Hunt, a casual friend from college, who asks him not to do an autopsy on the body of his wife Deirdre, which has been found on a small island off the coast of Dublin.  Deirdre may have been a suicide, and this is Dublin in the 1950s.  The Catholic Church is dominant as a social and judicial force, and Hunt does not want his wife to be denied the benefits of a Catholic burial. Quirke is vulnerable to persuasion.  He experienced the power of the church and its control of social and political policy-making two years ago when he investigated the death of a young woman, Christine Falls, after an abortion (the subject of Black/Banville’s first novel).  It was then he discovered that not only was his “brother,” Dr. Malachy Griffin involved, but that his “father,” Judge Garret Griffin was an even more important player.

Benjamin Black (pen name of John Banville)

Benjamin Black (pen name of John Banville)

Quirke owes much of his present life to Judge Griffin, who unofficially adopted him when he was a young orphan.   Sharing the Judge’s attention with his real son, Malachy Griffin, Quirke was grateful for the care, love, and education he received from the Judge.   Nevertheless, Quirke followed what he believed to be right in the Christine Falls case, nearly destroying the lives of both the Judge and Malachy in the process.  Though the author is careful to include some explanation about the past in this novel, including the reasons for his estrangement from his daughter, it is complex and not fully explained, much more easily understood by those who have read Christine Falls—and a reason for those who enjoy this book to read the earlier one for background (and another good story).

The body of Deirdre Hunt was found on a small island off the coast of Dublin, perhaps Lambay Island, here, just four kilometers from the coast.

The body of Deirdre Hunt was found on a small island off the coast of Dublin, perhaps Lambay Island, here, just four kilometers from the coast.

Despite his promise to Billy Hunt, Quirke obeys his hunch and, during the autopsy that he performs quietly, he discovers an injection mark, an observation he keeps to himself.   A verdict of accidental drowning is given officially, and Quirke then begins his investigation into the real cause of her death—accident, suicide, or murder. Through flashbacks and shifts in the point of view from Quirke to the other characters involved in Deirdre Hunt’s story, her complicated life unfolds.  Deirdre, a young woman who grew up poor, is shown as a young woman with  a head for business, and when Leslie White, an attractive, silver-haired man, suggests that they become partners in a beauty salon, which they name The Silver Swan, she accepts.  At the same time, she also explores the “spiritual healing” of Dr. Hakeem Kreutz, who is involved in illegal activities.  Soon Deirdre finds herself becoming more and more controlled by Leslie White and Kreutz, less able to make decisions, less grounded in reality—and less aware of the financial problems of her business.

Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, a maternity hospital built originally in 1745.

The Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, built originally in 1745.

As each character’s point of view allows him/her to expand the story of Deirdre, the characters grow, and Quirke himself becomes more fully developed.  His relationship with a woman estranged from her husband is both complex and sensitively explored by the author in some intense scenes.  At the same time, through flashbacks, Deirdre demonstrates her increasing sexual dependence on Leslie, leading to some graphic, even explicit, interludes.  When Quirke’s daughter Phoebe becomes involved with the same Leslie and Kreutz, the drama of Deirdre Hunt and her life hits home with Quirke. The nightmarish atmosphere becomes increasingly fraught, as the characters explore their sexual feelings and deal with their guilt.  Their separate points of view are given full play, and as the action leads to a fierce crescendo (and a somewhat ambiguous epilogue), the author also opens several new avenues for future novels.

1953, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Maynard Owen Williams/National Geographic Society/Corbis

1953, Dublin, Ireland. Statue of Daniel O’Connell. Click to enlarge. Photo by Maynard Owen Williams/National Geographic Society/Corbis

As much about Quirke as it is about the mystery of Deirdre Hunt, this novel, like Christine Falls, depends to a great extent on coincidence and improbabilities for its action and resolutions.  Quirke is an engaging and sympathetic protagonist, however.  Sober for six months when this novel opens, he continues to struggle every day with the “pub mentality,” and longs to become closer to his daughter, though he recognizes that he has no right to this affection.  His honesty is tempered by his acknowledgment that sometimes “justice” is better served when one takes private action–or no action at all.  Banville’s talents, so obvious in his literary novels, are on full display here.  His descriptions enliven the physical depiction of Dublin and the atmosphere, and his recognition of life’s ethical subtleties (and the church’s creation of some of those conflicts) gives thematic punch to the novel.  A fine addition to this continuing series, The Silver Swan adds to the Benjamin Black oeuvre.

ALSO by Benjamin Black:  CHRISTINE FALLS (Quirke),        THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE (Raymond Chandler),     DEATH IN SUMMER (Quirke),     VENGEANCE (Quirke)     EVEN THE DEAD (Quirke)

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from http://www.bbc.co.uk/

Lambay Island, just four kilometers off the coast, resembles the description of the island where Deirdre Hunt’s body was found.  It is the easternmost point of the Republic of Ireland: http://www.dublinbaycruises.com/

The Rotunda Hospital in Dublin has been operating since 1745.  http://curiousireland.ie

The 1953 photo of Dublin, by Maynard Owen shows the statue of Daniel O’Connell facing the street bearing his name.  Williams/ National Geographic Society/ Corbis.  https://www.pinterest.com

THE SILVER SWAN
REVIEW. Ireland, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues.
Written by: Benjamin Black
Published by: Henry Holt and Co.
Date Published: 03/04/2008
ISBN: 978-0805081534
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

NOTE: This novel, published in 2007, is the first of a series of mystery novels written by award-winning author John Banville, under the pen name of Benjamin Black, and set in Dublin in the 1950s. Because seven of the novels in the current series all feature the same main character, Quirke, whose life gradually opens to the reader during the series, I am re-posting this review of the first Quirke novel from 2007, along with a review of the second novel in the series, The Silver Swan from 2008, which help to explain the complex background of Quirke as we see him in his new novel, the seventh Quirke novel,  Even the Dead, also reviewed here.

“There’ll be a lot of dust if these particular pillars of society are brought down.  A lot of dust, and bricks, and rubble.  A body would want to be standing well out of the way.”

cover christine fallsWriting this thoughtful mystery with the same care that he devotes to his “serious” fiction, Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, using the pen name of “Benjamin Black,” draws on all facets of Dublin society and its Roman Catholic heritage to investigate the question of sin in all its aspects.  The result is a vibrantly alive, intensely realized story of Dublin life and values in the 1950s—a mystery which makes the reader think at the same time that s/he is being entertained.  Most of the characters, like most of Ireland, hold deeply ingrained religious beliefs, revere the clergy and the institution of the church, and recognize that the church is not only a source of inspiration but a dominant force in the country’s social, as well as business and financial, life. Unlike most of the characters, Quirke, the main character, holds no awe for the church.  A man in his early forties, “big and heavy and awkward,” Quirke is a pathologist/coroner at Holy Family Hospital, a man whose wife has died in childbirth, and who “prizes his loneliness as mark of some distinction.”  A realist, he has seen the dark side of life too often to hold out much hope for the future, his own or anyone else’s.

Benjamin Black (the pseudonym for author John Banville)

Benjamin Black (the pseudonym for author John Banville)

His vision of humanity is not improved when he goes to his office unexpectedly one evening and finds his brother-in-law, famed obstetrician Malachy Griffin, altering documents regarding the death of a young woman, Christine Falls.  When Quirke performs his autopsy on the woman, he discovers, not surprisingly, that Christine Falls has died in childbirth, that the place where she was found is different from the place listed in the documents, and that the fate of her baby is unknown. Quirke’s dedication to finding out the full circumstances of Christine’s death forms the basis of the novel’s mystery, but Banville has always been a complex novelist, as interested in character as in plot, and this novel is no exception.  Quirke is particularly committed to resolving the mysteries surrounding Christine’s death and the fate of her orphaned child since he knows nothing about his own parentage.

Autopsy room, 1950s.

Autopsy room, 1950s.

Quirke lived in an orphanage before being unofficially adopted by Judge Garrett Griffin, father of Dr. Malachy Griffin, who is obviously involved in the case of Christine Falls.  Malachy and Quirke grew up together and eventually married sisters, and Quirke has deep feelings for Malachy’s wife Sarah, for her daughter Phoebe, and for Judge Griffin, his adoptive father.  He is distressed at Malachy’s attempt to involve him in a cover-up. Developing on parallel planes, the novel becomes a study of Quirke and his personal relationships, at the same time that it is a study of Christine Falls and what she represents about Dublin society, the medical profession, and the church and its influence.  As one might guess from her symbolic name, Christine has “fallen,” at least in the view of the church, but the nature of her sin does not begin to compare to the sins that Quirke uncovers during his investigation of her death and the fate of her child.

"Christine Falls" began a miniseries about Quirke on Feb. 16, 2014.

“Christine Falls” began a miniseries about Quirke on Feb. 16, 2014.

Gradually, the reader learns about the Knights of St. Patrick, a conservative Catholic organization with which Malachy and Judge Griffin are associated; the association of these Knights with certain American charities; the behind-the-scenes administration of orphanages and convents; and the nature of power in upper-echelon Dublin.  Throughout, the author raises questions about the nature of good and evil and what constitutes sin. Murders, torture, beatings, and violence keep the action level high, and while this action is sometimes a bit melodramatic, with convenient coincidences, it is in keeping with the great, old-fashioned tradition of 1950s mystery-writing.  A change of location from Dublin to Boston adds to the flavor and broadens the scope of Quirke’s investigation, connecting the mystery to the history of the Irish and their traditions in Boston.

As always, Banville is a consummate artist, dedicating as much attention and care to his descriptions in this mystery as he does in his “literary” novels.  The introduction, sure to arouse interest in any reader, emphasizes a young woman’s response when she is handed a  baby to take on a journey—”What struck [her] first about the bundle was the heat: it might have been a lump of burning coal that was wrapped in the blanket, except that it was soft, and that it moved…”  He uses parallel scenes to show contrasts and similarities (a Christmas party in Dublin vs. a Christmas party in Boston, both of which end violently), and shows his mastery of voice as he maintains a conversational tone appropriate for Quirke.  One hopes that Banville will continue the story of Quirke, a character with enormous potential for further development.  After this fine debut mystery, one can easily imagine Banville becoming, like Graham Greene, a writer of both serious literary fiction and “entertainments.”

ALSO by Benjamin Black:   THE SILVER SWAN (Quirke),     THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE  (Raymond Chandler),    A DEATH IN SUMMER  (Quirke),     VENGEANCE  (Quirke),    EVEN THE DEAD (Quirke)

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears in http://www.independent.ie/

A hospital autopsy room like this one from the 1950s would have been familiar to main character Quirke.  https://www.pinterest.com/sarlou56/hospital-history/

The poster from the Quirke TV mini-series is from http://www.imdb.com/

CHRISTINE FALLS
REVIEW. Ireland, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Benjamin Black
Published by: Picador
Date Published: 01/22/2008
ISBN: 978-0312426323
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Older Posts »