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Note: This novel was WINNER of the Man Booker Prize for 2014. Gould’s Book of Fish was WINNER of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Wanting (2008) was WINNER of the Queensland Premier’s Prize, the Western Australia Premier’s Prize, and the Tasmania Book Prize.

“To the railway, said Colonel Kona raising his teacup.
To Japan, said Nakamura, raising his cup in turn.
To the Emperor, said Colonel Kota.
To Basho! said Nakamura.”

“They recited to each other more of their favorite haiku, and they were deeply moved not so much by the poetry as by their sensitivity to poetry; not so much by the genius of the poem as by their wisdom in understanding the poem; not in knowing the poem but in knowing the poem demonstrated the higher side of themselves and of the Japanese spirit…The Japanese spirit is now itself the railway [from Siam to Burma]…our narrow road to the deep north, helping to take the beauty and wisdom of Basho to the larger world.”

The “sensitivity” of these Japanese officers, their “wisdom in understanding,” and the “higher side of themselves” which they celebrate here were lost on the allied Prisoners of War they abused, and these qualities will be just as lost on readers of this novel as they read about unconscionable examples of gross inhumanity. Set during World War II, when many Australians became POWs after the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the novel details the brutality of the conquerors, their starvation of prisoners, their forcing of dying soldiers to work until they collapsed and expired, their murders and tortures, and even their use of conscious prisoners as guinea pigs for Japanese officers who wanted to test their bayonets. The sadism which paralleled the officers’ interest in poetry was cultivated and celebrated among themselves as proof of their dedication to the Emperor, who could do no wrong. Much of the action here takes place during the building of the Siam to Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway, which the Emperor wanted finished immediately so that it could eventually be extended to India. Over two hundred fifty miles long, and built only with hand tools by sixty thousand prisoners in 1943, the railway paralleled the River Kwai, heading northwest, from Bangkok. Twelve thousand prisoners died during this project, most from overwork and starvation, and some from being beaten to death.

Balanced against these horrors, which Flanagan depicts in grim and uncompromising imagery, is a non-traditional love story, which shows aspects of the Australian society from which most of the soldiers have come and hope to return, and particularly the society of Tasmania, which several main characters call home and where author Richard Flanagan himself grew up and has spent most of his life. Dr. Dorrigo Evans, from Cleveland, Tasmania, in the northeast, just south of Launceston, has been raised in a rural area among many people who are still illiterate. As a teenager, he, his brother, and a friend often earn money catching possums on Ben Lomond, sometimes staying overnight in a cave where Dorrigo reads the epic Ulysses to the others by firelight. As the only one in his family to pass the Ability Test for Launceston High School, where he has free schooling, he learns early that he has to fight his way to the top if he is to succeed.

This picture of possum hunting on Ben Lomond, by John Glover (1767 - 1849) recently sold at Christie's for $2,799,193. Click to enlarge.

Through an impressionistic time frame which circles around and sometimes begins and then abandons characters and ideas, only to return to develop them at a later time, the reader often sees Dorrigo and other important characters at various stages of their lives which do not reflect traditional chronology. From Dorrigo’s teen years, the novel jumps to eighteen years later where we learn that Dorrigo is now a surgeon with a lover. A few pages after this, he is an elderly man suffering from angina and reliving his life. The novel “settles in” to a traditional chronology for much of the novel when we learn that Dorrigo is about to ship out for war in 1943. He participates in the Syrian campaign, fights the Vichy French, and ends up in Singapore, where, along with twenty-two-thousand other Australians, he becomes a POW after the fall of Singapore. From the early pages the reader knows that one-third of these POWs will die, a factor which colors our thinking about the characters here as they work on the Death Railway which they are forced to build for their Japanese captors. Deaths, vividly described, occur faster than the bodies can be buried, and many are simply burned, along with the soldiers’ minimal belongings, on funeral pyres in the jungle.

On Feb. 15, 1942, Gen. Arthur Percival, carrying the British flag in the photo, left, surrenders to Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita

Flashbacks refer to various love affairs in which Dorrigo is involved, though he himself, now a surgeon, has always believed that he would eventually marry Ella, the plain daughter of a Melbourne solicitor whom he met in Melbourne during medical school. A visit to a local library changes his life when he meets Amy, an exciting young woman wearing a red camellia in her hair. Thoughts of Ella vanish as he becomes caught up in this relationship, unlike anything else he has ever known. Though he has been committed to Ella – and Amy is married – this love is bigger than anything either has ever known. Without any transitions, the novel then shifts suddenly to conversations among various Japanese officers who are frightened by the decline in food supplies and in medicines for the Railway Command Group. The officers know they must produce the required results for the Emperor, or “they, too, would disappear to their own hell somewhere else on that ever-lengthening railway line of madness.”

POWs working on the Siam to Burma Railway. These POWs still look reasonably healthy, a condition which changes dramatically when the "Speedo" begins, and they have to work double-shifts.

What makes this novel of warfare so different from so many others with impressionistic structures is that Flanagan creates vibrant scenes which reveal the big ideas and big horrors of warfare and develops some of his repeating characters for fifty years, bringing the story up to the present when his characters are old and providing an unusually broad scope and great depth to his subject matter. About halfway through the novel, the war ends suddenly, with little fanfare, “the dream of a global Japanese empire lost to radioactive dust.” The major Japanese officers return to a defeated country and must learn how to live with defeat. The reader is drawn in as many characters whom the reader will “know” are being sought for prosecution for war crimes. Many make deals in exchange for being let go, leaving lesser men to be prosecuted.

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. By courtesy of Tim Bowden.

The subsequent lives of the Japanese officers and how they deal with their guilt, are not much different from the lives of the Australian survivors, all of whom feel some level of guilt for having survived. “Neither the Japanese government nor the Americans want to dig up the past,” they understand. Flanagan, who spent twelve years, writing and destroying five complete drafts of this novel before he was satisfied, has created a novel which compels the reader to keep reading for the plot and characters, but also for the political and sociological implications of warfare itself, including nuclear warfare, as a way of imposing change. The novel is big, broad, and deep, a wonderful, though often grim, picture of Australians dealing with the horrors of a war which they did not choose but in which they had to fight for their own futures.

ALSO by Richard Flanagan:  GOULD’S BOOK OF FISH and WANTING

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

“Possum hunting on Ben Lomond,” by John Glover (1767 – 1849), recently sold at Christie’s for $2,799,193.  Dorrigo, his brother, and a friend hunted possum in Tasmania to raise money when they were teenagers.  Dorrigo spent evenings reading Ulysses, the epic, to the others by firelight. http://www.christies.com/

In the surrender of Singapore, Feb. 15, 1942, Gen. Arthur Percival, carrying the British flag in the photo, left, surrenders to Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita.  The Australians in this novel thereby become prisoners of war under the Japanese.  http://www.prisonersofeternity.co.uk/

Australian POWs working the Siam-Burma Railway, look in reasonable shape here, but when the “Speedo” occurred, and the men had to work double shifts, they quickly became emaciated from their lack of food and the energy expended. http://www.dailymail.co.uk (Topham Picturepoint Press Association)

The condition of these three POWs shows the effects of malnutrition.  The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden] http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/

Diogo Mainardi–THE FALL

“When people learn that my son has cerebral palsy, they look at him with a mixture of sympathy and pity.  I look at him as if he were a totem: with devotion, reverence and a feeling of inferiority.  They say that a child with cerebral palsy is better suited for living on the Moon, where there’s no gravity.  My son, therefore, is a man of the future, ready for interplanetary travel…My son is Captain Kirk.”

In this loving, and even exhilarating, memoir of his son Tito’s life, Brazilian author Diogo Mainardi introduces the reader to Tito from the moment of his birth in Venice, a birth bungled beyond belief by the doctor who delivered him.  Mainardi and his wife Anna had been living in Venice, and, under the spell of this magical city and, especially, of the beautiful Scuola Grande di San Marco, designed by Pietro Lombardo in 1489 and converted into a hospital in 1808, Mainardi wanted his son’s birth to be in this special building, which Ezra Pound celebrated in one of his cantos for its perfect beauty.   As Mainardi and Anna make their way on foot through the piazza on their way to Lombardo’s Scuola Grande di San Marco for the birth, they pass Andrea del Verrochio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, thought by many to be the “most glorious equestrian statue in the world.”  Mainardi, overcome at this moment, is “in the grip of the same stupid aestheticism as Ezra Pound…I could only associate the perfect art of Pietro Lombardo [and Andrea del Verrochio] with an equally perfect birth.  Because [such] Good, would be incapable of creating Evil…[or] a bungled birth.”

Mainardi and sons, Tito and Nico. Photo by Ruyn Teixeira

John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice, also confirmed this aesthetic for Mainardi:  “The architecture of a place, according to [Ruskin], has the power to shape the destiny of its inhabitants,” and for Mainardi that meant choosing to have his son born behind the gorgeous façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which Ruskin believed “exalted the ‘law of the Spirit,’ rejecting Pride of Science, Pride of State, and Pride of System.”  Unfortunately, in this case, medical science failed, the publicly owned Venice Hospital failed, and the system itself, with its rules and procedures failed – repeatedly – during Tito’s birth.  The physician who delivered Tito made egregious mistakes.  Deprived of oxygen for a prolonged period of time, Tito, the innocent victim of blunders, would be forever affected by cerebral palsy, unable to move as most people do – spastic.

Canaletto's picture of Scuola Grande di San Marco. Directly below the equestrian statue on the far right are two people walking, whom Mainardi identifies as Anna and himself on the way to the hospital in middle distance. See notes at end. Double-click to enlarge.

With references to artists, poets, historians, and even Alfred Hitchcock, author Mainardi associates the cerebral palsy of his son, who was destined to take many, many falls while growing up, with other well known events from the past, especially, in one long example, with Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, when James Stewart finally climbs the bell tower and overcomes his fear of heights, saying “I made it.”  Mainardi tells us that Tito, “step by step, is making it too…Tito is James Stewart.  He falls and survives.  To hell with Kim Novak [who falls and dies].”  Drawing parallels also between his own life and the many films with Lou Abbott and Bud Costello –  who, he says, “falls better” than anyone else, ever – Mainardi also traces the history of treatment for palsied children, and, in the case of the Nazis, their extermination.  He concludes that “I am the Simon Weisenthal of cerebral palsy. Josef Mengele is dead.  Tito is alive.”

The sublime equestrian statue which Mainardi and Anna pass on the way to the hospital. See Canaletto painting, on right side. “If Andrea del Verrocchio made the most glorious equestrian statue in the world, then I can say that I made the most glorious club-footed boy in the world,” Mainardi says.

From the first moment when he strokes his unresponsive son in the incubator after his birth and watches as, for the first time, Tito writhes and arches his back, Mainardi is totally dedicated to this little boy.  Mainardi then decides that “I am the Claude Monet of cerebral palsy.  Tito is my water lily.  He has become my sole subject matter.  I devote myself entirely to him, he is my one passion…I always find in him an unexpected color, an unexplored shadow.”  Later he goes on to say, “I never worshipped God.  I never worshipped Man.  However, I began to worship Tito.  I began to worship domestic life.  My gospel is an electricity bill.  My temple is a greengrocer’s shop. Tito is Everything.”

Ipanema Beach, Rio. Mainardi and his family move to Rio for nine years when he discovers that Tito can walk better on sand, since it is easier to fall on.

In other references, he notes that Comedian Francesca Martinez has cerebral palsy, and she refers to herself as a “wobbly” person, always about to fall.  Christy Brown, author of My Left Foot, has parents who ignored all the prognoses, helping to create a writer respected around the world.  A well-known singer has two sons with cerebral palsy, and his time spent with them in therapeutic programs is detailed here.  Irish author Christopher Nolan, who could not speak or move at all, learned to type with a “unicorn stick” attached to his forehead, becoming an inspiration to Bono, who went to school with him and wrote the song “Miracle Drug” for him.  How these people deal with their issues and celebrate their triumphs adds depth to the memoir and broadens its scope beyond the Mainardi family.  And when the Mainardis have a second son, the opposite of Tito, in that Nico can do everything, the photos of the two boys together are both loving and lovely.  Tito learns to walk with a walker and practices walking without aid, his father counting his steps till he falls, not stopping his counts till he reaches 424 steps here.  Nico loves Tito and accepts him totally, and vice versa. The many family snapshots, with Tito grinning broadly in nearly every one, shows the reality of this family and its life behind closed doors, and no one who reads this memoir will doubt for a moment that every word of “worship” which the author expresses for Tito is absolutely true.

Tito at age twelve.

The real miracle of this memoir, to me, is that the author tells his story honestly, without a shred of easy sentimentality or “why-me-ism.”  When he says that he worships Tito, it is easy to see that he really does, with all that that entails.  He accepts reality and works his hardest to see that Tito’s reality becomes less challenging wherever possible, making Tito a real person for the reader and not just a cerebral palsy “victim.”  It is clear that he is not a victim to Mainardi – just a boy, his son.  He makes this memoir a story of himself and Tito, and he does not complicate this with asides in which he analyzes their relationship with Anna and Nico, though it is clear that those relationships are healthy and loving, also.  For those of us whose children are blessedly “normal,” this memoir brings the behavior and the feelings of this parent out into the open as Mainardi lays bare his deepest thoughts about his child and his home and shows us that his family, too, is “normal,” a joy to know.

Photos, in order: The photo of Mainardi, Tito, and Nico, by Ruyn Teixeira, appears here:  http://veja.abril.com.br/

The Canaletto painting of the Scuola Grande di San Marco is from http://www.abcgallery.com Mainardi says that the two faceless people “clinging to each other like Siamese twins” in front of the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, on the far right, represent him and Anna.  “Ever since Tito’s Birth, on 30 September 2000, I have become a miniature man, without face or identity…What marks me out is fatherhood. I am merely a man eternally accompanying his wife to the birth of their son…I exist only because Tito exists.”

The equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, by Andrea del Verrocchio, was finished by Alessandro Leopardi in 1488.  It is considered the greatest equestrian statue in the world. Mainardi says:  “If Andrea del Verrocchio made the most glorious equestrian statue in the world, then I can say that I made the most glorious club-footed boy in the world.”  http://www.abcgallery.com

Enjoying Ipanema Beach in Rio, where the family lived for nine years, Tito learns to walk in the sand, where falls don’t hurt so much.  From http://winkmag.com.br

A more mature Tito, at age twelve, is seen on http://pioneiro.clicrbs.com.br/

Jane Smiley–SOME LUCK

NOTE: Jane Smiley was WINNER of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, and WINNER of the National Book Critics Circle Award for the same novel. She is LONGLISTED for the National Book Award in 2014 for Some Luck.

“The farm was the source of all good things, and what you couldn’t grow or make there, you didn’t need.  People in town had too much time on their hands, so they built themselves stores and picture shows and even parks, just to be doing something.  But really they weren’t doing anything.  Just using up stuff.”—Walter Langdon, in 1926.

Setting her novel in the farmlands of Iowa, as she did with A Thousand Acres, author Jane Smiley once again homes in on a proud farm family as it faces crises connected with its land.  This novel, however, has a broader, less intensely climactic sweep than A Thousand Acres, in which the action parallels that of Shakespeare’s King Lear.   Some Luck is quieter and more contemplative, the first of a trilogy which will eventually trace three generations of the Langdon family from 1920 to 2020, as it becomes a microcosm for one hundred years of United States history.  Smiley’s characters, beautifully realized through her trademark use of perfect small details to illuminate bigger aspects of personality, illustrate the many different talents, and ultimately goals, of a family whose members are firmly rooted in the land, which is their only real asset.  Some members will eventually choose to leave the farm, while others choose to stay. Smiley limits each chapter to one calendar year beginning in 1920 – the births and deaths, the hopes and dreams, the rhythms of nature and the yearly rituals it inspires, the uncertainties of daily life and the accidents of fate, the roles which each character chooses to accept or reject within the family, and the unpredictable, often dramatic effects of national events on people who have no control over them.  The novel ends in 1953 with the focus on new family members who will face another set of topical issues in the next novel.

Born on New Year’s Day in 1920 to twenty-five-year-old Walter Langdon and his twenty-year-old wife Rosanna, precocious baby Frank Langdon surprises his family from his earliest days, talking early, crawling early, and alertly observing life around him.  His cleverly developed, infant point of view, as he attends his first birthday party at his grandparents’ house, reveals his curiosity and his sense of fun as he “pays court” to the women in the family and is roundly celebrated.  His aunt Eloise soon moves in with the family to help care for him as his mother has her next child – Joe – totally different in personality, shy, sickly as an infant, less aggressive, and more sensitive.  Another baby, Mary Elizabeth, arrives in 1924.  Life is busy on the farm, with no electricity and no motorized vehicles, but with a culture in which the farmers help each other bring in their harvests and share information.  Before he is even five, Frank is already contributing to the family, leading the horses in and out of the pasture, and feeding the chickens and horses in the winter before school.

Billy Sunday, 1923, lithograph by George Bellows, now at the Columbus Museum of Art

The domestic aspects of life on the farm with all its uncertainties, the games the family plays for fun, and lively descriptions of tasks like sheep-shearing alternating with family stories, set up the reader for an unexpected and shocking death which leads Rosanna to attend a  religious revival by traveling evangelist Billy Sunday.  For her, “Coming again and again…was like having an account at the bank.”  She changes in personality, fearful of the future now, dressing more plainly and giving up “vanity” in an effort to avoid future disasters but can do nothing to avoid what is coming – the Great Depression, a well going dry, drought, and terrible weather which reduce the amount of oats and corn available to sell. By 1931, one member of the family has become a communist, Walter has changed political parties, and another baby has arrived.  Frank sells pelts of rabbits and an occasional fox for enough money to buy a bike so that he can continue school, and when he leaves the farm for high school, living with a relative, he is known as “the best liar” in a gang of young boys.

REO Flying Cloud, part of a collection of REO pictures by Alden Jewell. Double click to see collection.

History moves forward inexorably, with one family member hanging himself, even as Frank and a friend, by 1939, begin exploring the countryside near their school in the friend’s father’s REO Flying Cloud.  Exactly what he is doing remains a question even after he begins working at the school helping a faculty member to find a new way to make gunpowder in the lead-up to World War II.  The various Langdon children, including two more babies (bringing to six the number of Langdon babies), keep life on the farm active for Rosanna.  Fate intervenes once again with a surprising death from an impacted wisdom tooth, and by 1943, Frank is fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.  Eventually, the action of the novel extends to Washington, DC, as the work of the FBI and the interest in “un-American activities” affects the Langdon family as it has many other families throughout the country.  The novel ends suddenly in 1953, the author obviously leaving many doors open for the next novel in the trilogy.

American tanks enter Rome, as Frank does, on June 5, 1944.

Smiley’s characters are so “ordinary” that they are easy for a reader to identify with, and her focus on the long view of history through this family makes them easy enough to remember and not so complex that the reader is distracted from the themes.  The family is large enough to provide many contrasts and different viewpoints as the characters represent the many aspects of life in the twenties, thirties, and forties.  Some scenes do seem gratuitous – a visit to Frank’s mother by one of Frank’s former girlfriends, Frank’s own visit to a house of ill repute, and several battle scenes – which provide variety and interest but seem to serve little purpose in the narrative.  The many characters, some of them peripheral, make the genealogical chart at the beginning a necessity but complicate the novel unnecessarily.

A continuing symbolic image is that of the osage-orange hedge at the farm. Here someone creates this hedge, covered with thorns, which eventually grows to be almost tree height.

Still, Jane Smiley continues to work her literary magic here, creating the first novel in what seems destined to become an epic saga of American life.  For all its apparent simplicity, the novel takes a close view of major themes in American life – one’s identity both within a family and within a time and place, the uncertainties of nature and of fate, the very nature of capitalism and its effect on the small farmers on whom we all depend, and the issues of our own national identity.  Smiley leaves the reader wondering where she will go from here during the next thirty years of this intriguing trilogy.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.theguardian.com

The Billy Sunday lithograph by George Bellows appears on http://arthopper.org/ It may be found at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Osage orange fruit and leaves.

The REO Flying Cloud sedan, shown here as part of a collection of REO pictures by Alden Jewell, is from https://www.flickr.com/ and is posted in accord with the Creative Commons license.  Double click to see the full collection, including the REO Speedwagon.

American tanks entering Rome on June 5, 1944, may be found on http://liberationtrilogy.com. Frank Langdon was among the Americans.

The osage-orange hedge becomes a prickly symbol in this novel.  Here a woman shows how to create one.  http://projetscollectifs.org/

A close-up of the osage-orange tree with its fruit (poisonous to all animals except squirrels) is on http://www.ontarioprofessionals.com/

Note: Critic Philip Hensher describes Elizabeth Taylor as  “one of the hidden treasures of the English novel.” Kingsley Amis named her “one of the best English novelists born in this century”; Antonia Fraser called her “one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century.” Hilary Mantel says that she is “deft, accomplished and… underrated.”–The Guardian, May 11, 2012


“Another day is another world…Not only are the landscape and the light changed, but people are different, relationships which the night before had progressed at a sudden pace, appear to be back where they were.  Some hopes are renewed, but others dwindle: the state of the world looks rosier and death further off…we begin to regret promises…we do not love our friends so warmly…writers tear up the masterpiece they wrote the night before.”

Author Elizabeth Taylor, who failed her entrance exams to university, never let that get in the way of her writing career.  Like Angel in her novel of the same name, she began writing as a teenager, finishing her first novel before she was sixteen, and writing constantly ever after that.  Unable to get any of her work published until she was in her early thirties, she made up for lost time, however, publishing six novels between 1945 and 1953, and five more between then and 1971.  A Game of Hide and Seek, published in 1951 and recently republished as a New York Review Book Classic, is one of her most intensely psychological novels, the story of two young people who spend their time in self-imposed isolation, their paths crossing briefly when, as teenagers they find themselves sharing summer vacations.  By the time Harriet Claridge and Vesey Macmillan are eighteen, they are being encouraged to entertain Harriet’s younger cousins to keep them busy during their summer vacation in the country, and they sometimes use hide-and-seek games played with the children to be together in private. They are, however, shy, innocent, and self-conscious, despite Vesey’s uncontrollable malicious streak (which Harriet sometimes thinks she deserves), and so they sit in the loft or the barn “in that dusty stuffiness, among old pots of paint, boxes of bulbs, stacks of cobwebbed deck-chairs, rather far apart and in silence…The only interruption was when one of them timidly swallowed an accumulation of saliva.”

From this inauspicious beginning of the novel, which is further complicated for the reader because the first thirty pages of the novel “tell about” the past with little dialogue to enliven it, the author develops the relationship between Harriet and Vesey over the next thirty years.  As a teenager enamored of Vesey but unsure of herself and of him, she obsesses over a quick kiss he gives her as he prepares to go on to school.  Harriet has failed her exams, though her mother has had little hope that she would pass.  Mother and daughter are not close, her mother, Lilian, having been a suffragette with Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, with whom she allowed herself to be jailed, while timid Harriet invents stories of meeting Vesey secretly, and writes in her diary in excruciating detail about every action or movement he makes.  Vesey, too, is also isolated, but his reaction when he is in school is the opposite of Harriet’s.  Instead of being timid, he becomes “disruptive, cheeky…and the same sort of little monkey that he had been at home.”   Lazy and often mean-spirited, he teases his cousins during the summer, persuades them to eat meat, though the family is vegetarian, tells disgusting stories of corpse-eating, and makes dismissive comments about Harriet in front of the children.  Somehow amidst all this, the two eventually exchange a passionate kiss which changes Harriet’s life forever, and when Vesey is sent home partway through the final summer, she is devastated.

Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain, the co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, and the first dean of a British medical school. A suffragette, Harriet's mother went to jail with her. Portrait by John Singer Sargent

The novel divides into two parts.  Eventually, Harriet meets Charles, “an elderly man of thirty-five,” a solicitor whose mother Julia is a free spirit who appears “to love her, who had singled her out.” Her own mother dislikes Charles’s mother almost instantly, which may be part of Julia’s attraction for Harriet.  Still unmarried, Charles plays concert piano for Harriet and her mother when they visit.  “Harriet tried to put on a polite and considering look.  She loved the music, but could not allow herself to enjoy it among strangers.  Sunk too far back in her too large chair, she felt helpless, like a beetle turned on its back…” It comes as no surprise as Harriet and Charles eventually connect, thanks to some of the beauty and courtship hints given to her by her uninhibited fellow-employees in the dress shop where she works, and though her feelings for Charles are closer to toleration than love, they eventually marry.  Harriet’s personality changes after her marriage, and she becomes somewhat more assertive, more willing to take chances.  Vesey, on the other hand, leaves Oxford and floats around as an actor.  Occasionally, over the years, they meet, something that gives Harriet something to look forward to in her boring marriage, “a frayed and tangled thing made by two strangers.”

Harriet's mother celebrates Women's Suffrage each year by wearing her silver "Jailed for Freedom" pin, an embarrassment to Harriet.

Taylor creates effective overlaps in her story and characterizations as she examines her characters and their failings under a magnifying glass.  Harriet’s daughter Betsy comes to resent Harriet, as Harriet did her own mother, confiding in one of her unmarried teachers, who gives her the support that she does not get at home.  Charles develops some of the same kinds of malicious behavior we have seen with Vesey as a teenager.  Betsy obsesses about an unrequited love, as did Harriet.  Vesey begins to obsess about the past as Harriet once did, blaming Harriet for “panicking too soon” when she married.  Characters do not say to others what they dream of saying, and they react dishonestly when they believe that they are sparing others the hurt that they themselves feel.  Being polite and restrained are valued qualities among the people in Harriet’s life in this post-war society, and it is inherently dishonest.  At one point Harriet recognizes the problem:  “Nowadays, perhaps always, happiness has to be isolated.  Only when we blot out all that surrounds it, can we have it perfect, as we so often have perfect grief.”  She has values and a sense of responsibility which are necessary for society but often interfere with personal happiness.

Late in the novel Vesey reappears from playing a role at a theatre on the oceanfront, outside of London, perhaps this one in Southampton.

This novel, despite its slow start, becomes all-consuming as Taylor creates real people with real feelings from a society which is socially poles apart from our own. Still, she manages to make the reader understand Harriet as she changes, along with the shallow Vesey, the responsible but insecure Charles, the lonely and romantic Betsy desperate for love, and the parents and friends of all of them, providing a context for Harriet, Vesey, and Charles and explaining their thinking.  Darkly humorous in some places, it is almost unbearably sad in other places as the reader observes the characters struggling to create some vestige of happiness which most of us experience spontaneously.  What keeps them all going, apparently, is the idea that “Another day is another world…”


Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://bookssnob.wordpress.com

The portrait and information on Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson appear on http://en.wikipedia.org/ Dr. Anderson was an English physician and feminist, the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain, the co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female M.D. in France. The portrait of Dr. Anderson circa 1900, by John Singer Sargent.

The “Jailed for Freedom” pin, which Harriet’s mother was so proud to wear on Women’s Suffrage Day each year was an embarrassment to Harriet.  It is from http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu

The Mayflower Theatre in Southampton may have been the venue for one of Vesey’s roles near the end of the novel.  http://www.travelpod.com/

“Taking such radical steps is certainly no easy decision…[but] the few must be sacrificed for the many, as they say…The bank will be safeguarded and consolidated, society will go on as before, investments will continue, jobs will be retained and shareholders will suffer no losses.  And who, in the meantime…do you think might bother to check up on how the pygmies of Dja are progressing?”—Jens Brage-Schmidt, Chairman of the Karrebaek Bank.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s fifth novel in the Department Q series, under the “leadership” of Copenhagen Detective Carl Morck, continues the story of Morck and his unconventional assistants who operate out of a basement office dedicated to the solution of cold cases.  A victim of PTSD from a case in which he was wounded by a nail gun, with one of his men left paralyzed from the neck down and another one killed, Morck has been consigned to the basement, out of the way of the rest of the Copenhagen Police Department, which keeps him on only because they need the money which Parliament has granted for the cold cases that Morck’s department investigates.  An alcoholic loner, Morck has hired as his assistants two other loners with problems and mysteries associated with them. A man from the Middle East named Hafez-el-Assad, a name he shares with the former President of Syria, has an almost instinctive ability to discover connections between cases  and to obtain information.  Rose, who started as a secretary and who is famous for her piercings, has gradually progressed into case work.  None of the three in Department Q fear the wrath of the higher-ups or care what anyone else thinks.

The Marco Effect begins obliquely.  A man from a Baka village of pygmies in Cameroon, Louis Fon, is working with a Danish bank which funds development work in this rural, remote area.   After receiving a cellphone call in the jungle, he realizes that his discovery of funding irregularities puts his life at risk, and he has only enough time to type out a message (which is unreadable) before he is attacked.  Further development of this plot line shows the massive corruption of the funding bank in Denmark, and the administrators in Cameroon who are responsible for using the funds for the betterment of the rural Baka area.  The bank, in danger of closing, has found a way to “recycle” the funding from Denmark to Cameroon and then back to the Danish headquarters and to the officers of the company. The novel moves back and forth in time, with information parceled out carefully to maintain as much suspense as possible.  Other deaths soon occur.

Baka hut in rural Cameroon. Photo by Corinne Staley.

A second plot line takes place in  Copenhagen, where a group of gypsies, mostly children, under the leadership of a sadistic and violent “spiritual” leader, roam the streets, picking pockets, begging, and doing petty crimes in order to meet their monetary quota each day.  Marco, one of the young men still in his early teens, publicly challenges the leader, his own uncle, and, as a result, finds himself running for his life. Marco has dreams of college, of becoming a doctor, and of being successful, though he is not allowed to attend school, and his frantic efforts to avoid being caught by his uncle and a loose confederation of gypsy groups throughout Europe keep the suspense high.

Child pickpockets target tourists.

A third subplot concerns a cold case in which a woman is killed in the explosion of the houseboat on which she lives, and questions arise as to whether this is an insurance scam, a murder by her husband, or some other kind of crime.  As always seems to be the case with police departments as they are depicted in crime novels, interdepartmental rivalries and jealousies threaten Morck and his assistants.  As each of these plot threads unspools, the question of how, if at all, these threads will connect becomes a paramount interest for the reader.

Brumleby, a 19th century development in which two hundred forty units, all alike, were built to house medical personnel. Carl assigns Rose the job of interviewing a huge number of residents here in an effort to find a suspect in the houseboat crime.

Adler-Olsen has always excelled at keeping interest high both through his dramatic action and through his use of wonderful repeating characters as they continue to develop.  New sides of Morck appear here, including his laziness regarding his romantic involvements, and Assad is shown to have some skills at interrogation which make Morck and the reader wonder where he learned them.  Rose, over time, has become a mystery.  Her personality seems to shift and change with each novel, from giggly office girl in The Keeper of Lost Causes, to a woman with major psychiatric problems in A Conspiracy of Faith, to a woman known more for her piercings than for her obvious talent as an investigator in this novel.  Peripheral characters are often intriguing, and Marco draws in the reader with his desire to become a person with a future, showing much ingenuity in avoiding a constant series of death traps.

The Black Diamond wing of the Royal Danish Library becomes a factor in this novel when Marco discovers that some of the gypsy children are using it for their own purposes.

Though nearly all crime thrillers rely on coincidence to some extent, the coincidences in this novel especially strain credulity.  In the first twenty pages, the first of these appears, as a man from Sweden, who has no other role in the novel, spontaneously offers to use his talents to help decode the last message of Louis Fons in Cameroon for a man from the Copenhagen bank. Later Marco, with a part-time job putting up and then taking down posters, miraculously comes across the photo of a man to whom he is unexpectedly connected, a photo posted several years ago.  And an even greater coincidence occurs when Rose, at a local café, sees exactly the same photo and finds that it provides her with information as important to her as it has been to Marco.  The most unlikely coincidence of all occurs when a magazine is found inside a house which has been closed for a couple of years, and, surprise, it is a magazine to which someone has subscribed and therefore has the person’s name and, more importantly, address on it.  An unusual coincidence involving a secret connection between Assad and another person working in the police department raises even more questions about the legitimacy of using coincidence to resolve plot issues.

Freetown Christiania, a "free state" within Copenhagen, is the site of a climactic scene. Photo by Kieran Lynam.

The novel, at five hundred pages, is packed with action, but the overall structure is weak, as are the connections among the plot lines.  One subplot, involving the explosion on the houseboat is completed within the first three hundred pages and disappears.  The connection between the gypsy subplot and the Danish bank defies credulity, no matter how desperate the head of the bank might be. Ultimately, the novel feels artificial and contrived, in need of editing and the kind of careful attention to detail which was so obvious in Adler-Olsen’s first novel of the series, The Keeper of Lost Causes.


Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://acornerofthelibrary.blogspot.com

A Baka hut in Cameroon, part of a pygmy community, was photographed by Corinne Staley for http://fortheinterim.com/the-pygmies-of-east-cameroon/

Child pickpockets, like those with whom Marco was associated, are shown on http://caminosantiago2.blogspot.com

Brumleby, a 240-unit residential complex built in the mid-19th century for medical workers, is an area in which Morck and Rose look for a person the need to talk to.  Morck eventually gives the job of visiting all these buildings, which look alike to Rose, who is undaunted by the task.  http://www.kulturarv.dk/

The Black Diamond building of the Royal Danish Library is shown on this site:  http://jakeincopenhagen.wordpress.com/

Freetown Christiania, an area which celebrates personal freedom, is the site of a climactic scene in the novel. Photo by Kieran Lynam.  http://www.quirkyguide.com/place/christiania-denmark

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