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“Death was a door.  I think that is what [Big Kit] wanted me to understand.  She did not fear it.  She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.  That was the idea that had come to her with [our new master], like a thread of poison poured into a well.”  Washington Black, age eleven.

George Wcover wasington blackashington Black, a young slave born in 1818, tells his life story – as much as he knows of it – beginning when he is eleven, a boy living on the sprawling Faith Plantation in Barbados.  His master has just died, and he and Big Kit, the slave woman who watches over him, know nothing about the person who will take his master’s place.  Wash, as he is known, is an orphan with no family, a person without a “real” name, known only by the slave name assigned to him by a master who is also in charge of every other aspect of his life – and his death.  When the new master arrives from England a few months later,  he is everyone’s worst nightmare.  The maimings begin – and the killings.  Some slaves commit suicide in desperation while others are killed when they are caught and publicly beheaded.   Most, like Big Kit, remain, still holding onto their beliefs from their past lives in Africa, believing that when they die they will be “reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” 

Author Esi Edugyan

Author Esi Edugyan

Canadian author Esi Edugyan does not dwell on the sadism of the master and the horrors he wreaks for long.  She is far more committed to telling the story of “Wash,” whom we learn through a flashback in the first few pages, is a survivor, one who at eighteen is officially a Freeman.  What unfolds in the ensuing three hundred pages is Wash’s story, a monument to the human spirit and what it takes for someone who has never known freedom or had the opportunity to make his own decisions to learn how to exist in an alien world.  Wash, still a young teenager at the outset, has always had to follow a master’s instructions to say alive.  Words like “success” or “happiness” are not only irrelevant to him, they are concepts totally foreign to him.  His only goal, if he can be said to have one, is learning to cope with sudden changes – all changes – in order to survive. 

A form of "Cloud-cutter," which Titch is anxious to test in person.

A form of “Cloud-cutter,” which Titch is anxious to test in person.

Edugyan recognizes that to make this novel come alive for the reader, she must provide Wash with mentors, ordinary people who recognize Wash’s abilities and use Wash’s talents to help them achieve their own goals.  While this may seem a cynical attitude among the people on whom Wash comes to depend, the novel would be unrealistic if their attitudes toward Wash were not reflective of the times in which they all live.  As a result, the guides and mentors for Wash do not set out to “adopt” him or, worse, act as “fairy godmothers” in a sentimental attempt to make his release from slavery more appealing to the reader.  His lack of education, lack of experience dealing with the outside world, his fears and vulnerabilities, and the racial prejudices within the world in which he is living, leave Wash completely at the mercy of others unless he can learn how his world works and how to stay alive within it.  A few people in Wash’s life do take on the job of trying to help him while also helping themselves until Wash has acquired enough experience to be able to manage his own life.  His first mentor is the master’s brother Titch, who is interested in aeronautics and has built a Cloud-cutter, a balloon that will carry humans.

Indians trading fur at Hudson's Bay Trading post, 1800s, where Titch searches for his issing father.

Indians trading fur at Hudson’s Bay Trading post, 1800s, where Titch searches for his missing father.

Wash has been working at the main house, and Titch has chosen him for only one reason.  He plans to do a test flight, and Wash is the right weight to be the ballast on the flight.  Later Titch discovers that Wash has a talent for drawing, and he immediately makes Wash his assistant, recording measurements, equations, and outcomes and discussing them with him.  One experiment leaves Wash a burn victim, with horrific facial burns which take weeks to heal and leave him with permanent facial scars.  After he recovers, another of the master’s family involves him in an event which leaves the naive Wash a wanted man. Part II takes place shortly afterward on a big-rigged ship with Titch and Wash heading to Virginia and “freedom.”  It is then that they see a Wanted Poster offering “A Reward of One Thousand Pounds…for the capture of George Washington Black, a Negro Boy of small stature, his countenance marked with Burns; a Slave for life.”

Philiop Henry Gosse may have been the model for G. M. Goff. This is one of his illustrations, "Sea Anemones and Corals."

Philiop Henry Gosse may have been the model for G. M. Goff. This is one of his illustrations, “Sea Anemones and Corals.”

Titch wants to continue up through Canada on the way to Alaska to look for his missing father, and he believes that Wash’s best chances for survival lie instead in his joining a Loyalist community in northern Canada. Still pursued by a bounty hunter, Wash, at fifteen, is soon on his way to Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.  It is there that Wash realizes that “Though I did not know it then, I had begun the months of my long desolation.  I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow, and with each new month I fell deeper into strangeness.  For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running from the dimmest of shadows.” Eventually, he meets a scientist, Mr. G.M. Goff, who specializes in sea creatures, a character purportedly based on the celebrated marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse, and follows him to England.  Later he travels on to Marrakesh in Morocco.

The Saadian Tombs, in Marrakesh, where Wash has an epiphany.

The Saadian Tombs, in Marrakesh, where Wash has an epiphany.

As the novel concludes, the harsh realism begins to take on more spiritual, mystical, and even magical moments, in part due to the fact that Wash is in love.  The author clearly believes that emotional and spiritual health is important in formulating one’s view of the world, and as Wash reconnects with some of the people who have helped him in the past and is able to ignore others who have hurt him, the reader shares Wash’s growing understanding of how they became who they are, and why and how Wash has gained insights that his former mentors may not understand even yet.  It is not by accident that some of most important moments have been spent in the air and in the water,  rather than on earth.  The conclusion includes an epiphany for Wash, but its exact nature is not completely clear.  He has made some enormous personal gains, but he is still young, and still a victim of limited expectations by the larger world in which he is now a part.  The reader is left with much to ponder, grateful for the fact that despite the large number of coincidences in the narrative, the author has never resorted to sentimentality or sensationalism to conclude what is a dramatic and powerful study of slavery and its effects on people whose lives are what they are completely by the accident of their birth.

The beautiful lionfish (pterois) in the Solomon Islands was studied by G. M. Goff.

The beautiful, but venomous, lionfish (pterois) in the Solomon Islands was studied by G. M. Goff.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.bookbuffet.com/

A balloon similar to the Cloud-cutter which Titch has been working on is found in https://www.britannica.com/

Titch spends time in Hudson’s Bay, Canada, looking for his missing father:  https://en.wikipedia.org

Philip Henry Gosse, purportedly the model for G. M. Goff, is the illustrator for “Sea Anemones and Corals,” an illustration similar to what Wash has done for Mr. Goff.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Wash has an epiphany in Marrakesh, where the Saadian Tombs are located. https://howbeautifullifeis.com

The beautiful, but venomous, lionfish was studied by G. M. Goff in the Solomon Islands:  https://www.groupersandwich.com/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Barbados, Canada, England, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Esi Edugyan
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 09/18/2018
ISBN: 978-0525521426
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Prolific author William Boyd has been WINNER of the Whitbread First Novel Award,  the Somerset Maugham Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the Costa Award, among others, and was SHORTLISTED for the IMPAC Dublin (now International Dublin Literary Prize) in 2004.

“Brodie stood on the Molo…hands in pockets, staring out over the Adriatic with its silent migration of clouds.  This was the view which inspired him…[The Adriatic] looked like a boundless ocean, the distance-hazed horizon barely visible, the charge of light from the sea and the sky half-blinding him.  He liked to think of his presence here on this jutting stone promontory as a symbol of his journey’s end.”

cover love is blindLove is Blind, British author William Boyd’s thrilling new novel, reflects the kinds of excitements, revelations, and atmosphere so common to the great Russian romances of the nineteenth century.  Partially set in St Petersburg, this is a big, broad, romantic story which moves around the world as Brodie Moncur, a Scottish piano tuner, becomes totally consumed by his love for a married woman and follows his love throughout Europe.  Certain to appeal to those looking for well written literary excitement and fast-paced action, the novel will also appeal to those with a fondness for Russian novels.  Though I recognized, early on, that Boyd is mimicking the style of the Russian sagas, I am not an expert in Russian literature, and I discovered by accident, after I finished the book, that the novel is much more than the sum of its plot, characters, settings and love story. 


Photo by Rebecca Reid.

When I chose the quotation which opens my review of Love is Blind, I did not realize that the quotation I chose parallels the epigraph quotation on the novel’s first page, a quotation about Anton Chekhov by his wife Olga Nipper-Chekhova.  In her own book, she tells of a play Chekhov was intending to write in which a scientist whose ship is icebound contemplates the grandeur of the night and the sky ablaze with the Northern Lights as he “sees the shadow of the woman he loves.”  The parallels between the imagery of Olga Chekhova’s quotation at the beginning of Boyd’s novel, and my own coincidental choice of imagery for the opening quotation of this review made me do more research about author William Boyd and his familiarity with Chekhov.  It soon became clear that other surprising similarities exist between Chekhov’s life and work and the action in this novel.  While these may be fascinating to literary historians, they are not necessary to the enjoyment of the novel.  Love is Blind is a big, broad story, partially set in St. Petersburg, a story of  a love which totally consumes the main character, just as it will, I think, consume most readers.

piano tuning

Piano Tuning

The Prologue is set in the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar in 1906, as a young ethnologist informs her sister that she has a new assistant, a thirty-five-year-old Scotsman named Brodie Moncur.  In Part I the novel then shifts back in time twelve years to 1894 in Edinburgh, where Brodie Moncur, age twenty-four, has been working for six years for Channon and Co., the fourth largest piano manufacturer Britain.  A skilled piano tuner with a flawless ear, he works for the best concert pianists in the country, sometimes traveling with them to tune their pianos on a daily basis.  When he is approached by the head of the company to go to Paris, he views this as an opportunity to escape his mean-spirited father, a conservative preacher.  Though he will be free in Europe, he will be working under the owner’s son, who has taken an instant dislike to him.

Evening in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais.

Evening in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais.

Part II, the longest section, takes place in Paris, Geneva, and Nice from 1896 – 1898, as the characters are introduced, their backgrounds are explored, and their relationships develop. Brodie, soon begins making suggestions for improving the piano company directly to the owner, since his son has refused to agree to any of Bodie’s proposed changes.  Eventually, Brodie is allowed to set up live piano concerts in the windows of the Paris store while also showing the insides of a grand piano to demonstrate its complexity and all its moving parts.  He also hires a concert pianist who will use Channon products and transport his own specially made Channon piano to his concerts, the action which leads to the rest of the story and its complications. He hires pianist John Kilbarron, whose his lover, Lydia Blum, a Russian known as Lika, agrees to accompany them on a tour.  Not surprisingly, Brodie falls deeply in love with Lika. Soon the two are meeting secretly, even as Brodie works diligently on Kilbarron’s piano for his concerts.

The Vosnensky Bridge in an area where Brodie has a beautiful seven room apartment near the Vosnensky Prospect

The Vosnensky Bridge in an area where Brodie has a beautiful seven room apartment near the Vosnensky Prospect

Part III begins the “travelogue,” which opens in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Brodie learns that he has tuberculosis.  A wealthy Russian girl pursues him even as he continues to meet Lika privately.  Eventually, of course, Kilbarron becomes suspicious, and Kilbarron’s vicious brother Malachi plans revenge, going so far as to demand, and then conduct, a duel involving Brodie. Part IV, from 1900 – 1902, occurs in Biarritz, Edinburgh, and Nice, where Brodie resides during the winter to make his breathing less difficult.  He is still pursued, however, by Malachi, and no matter where he goes, he is followed, his life and that of Lika always in danger.  Part V returns to Paris, leading to a romantic crisis.  Part VI moves to Vienna, Graz, and Trieste, from 1902 – 1905, on the Adriatic.  Ultimately, Brodie goes to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, arriving there in 1906.


This painting by an unknown painter shows the Molo in Trieste, where Brodie shares his feelings about the future in the opening quotation.

This general summary and the continuous changes of setting illustrate the long commitment of Brodie Moncur to Lika Blum as he follows her around the world, and while she is full of paradoxes as she moves in and out of his life and that of John Kilbarron, his love is genuine.  The depictions of Europe and Russia during this period are fun to relive, and the information about the mechanics of the piano and its maintenance is far more exciting than one might expect.  The last hundred pages of this almost four-hundred page book are a bit of a letdown, compared to the love story that has occupied most of the book, but Boyd is letter perfect with his romanticism and his recreation of a Russian love story for most of the book.  Readers looking for a welcome break from the turmoil on television will find this novel to be a beautifully conceived and executed old-fashioned novel in which “love is [truly] blind.”

Note:  Those who are interested in exploring more of the subtle references to the life of Chekhov in the novel will find Carys Davies’s review in The Guardian particularly helpful. 


Benjamin franklin bifocals

Benjamin Franklin Bifocals, which Brodie needs because of his very poor eyesight.

Photos:   The author’s photo by Rebecca Reid appears on https://www.dailymail.co.uk/

The photo of the open piano is from http://www.countrypiano.com/

The night in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais may be found on

The Vosnensky Bridge, near Brodie’s elegant, seven-room apartment, reflects the changes in his status:  http://www.visit-petersburg.ru/

The Molo in Trieste is the scene of an epiphany by Brodie:  https://www.nauticareport.it/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Scotland, France, Russia, Literary, Historical, Psychological Study, Book Club Suggestion
Written by: William Boyd
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 10/09/2018
ISBN: 978-0525655268
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This book/novella is the latest book which Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano has written about his early life in France, and it is, in many ways, the culmination of his story, a novel which reveals aspects of his life which he is only now addressing and putting into context. Fans of the author will find this book both intimate and important.  Those new to Modiano will probably feel more comfortable beginning with Suspended Sentences, which describes the unusual (and dysfunctional) childhood which made him the writer he is now.

“I’m trying to impose some order on my memories.  Every one of them is a piece of the puzzle, but many are missing, and most of them remain isolated.  Sometimes I manage to connect three or four, but no more than that. So I jot down bits and pieces that come back to me in no particular order, lists of names or brief phrases.  I hope that these names, like magnets, will draw others to the surface, and that those bits of sentences might end up forming paragraphs and chapters that link together.” – Patrick Modiano

cover sleep of memoryI have made no secret of the fact that I am addicted to the work of French author Patrick Modiano, having read, at this point, well over a dozen of his novels and novellas.  I was hooked from the day I read Suspended Sentences, a novella about his early childhood, in which his black-marketeer father and his absent actress mother abandoned him and his younger brother Rudy to the care of a group of circus acrobats who lived near an abandoned chateau.  These acrobats were arrested several months later for criminal activities, leading to a new chapter in Patrick Modiano’s life.  Since reading that account, I have also become familiar with Modiano’s later life in a boarding school, in some summer activities when he was of college age, and in his early years as a writer, times which are a focus of additional Modiano works.  The one period which Modiano has not described in detail until now includes the five years from the time he was seventeen until he was twenty-two, a time which every parent knows can often be crisis-filled and laden with events which may affect the maturing teen for life.  For Modiano, who had virtually no family life and was forced to make most of his decisions without the aid of supportive adults, this was a fraught time about which he still has questions, described in this review’s opening quotation.


date about 1965Sleep of Memory, Modiano’s first published work since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, draws together many of his early memories of these late teens and early twenties, often in fragments, which have haunted him from the mid-1960s.  It is by far the most intimate picture he has given of his life, which feels so real here that it is hard to imagine that it is “fictionalized.”  He recalls these years as “a time of encounters, in a long-distant past,” admitting that he “was prone back then to a fear of emptiness, like a kind of vertigo.”  Many of his memories from this period, not surprisingly, are connected with girls and women.  The first “memory” here is of “Stioppa’s daughter,” when he is fifteen.  He thinks she might have been the daughter of one of his father’s Russian connections in the French black-market, and he hopes that she will “help [him] understand [his] father, a stranger…” but though he telephones her often, she never calls him back.

Modiano describes Genevieve and her role in his life in 1964, and then in 1970, he meets her again at the botanical gardens and zoo to get caught up on her life.

Modiano describes Genevieve and her role in his life in 1964, and then again in 1970, when he meets her  at the botanical gardens and zoo to get caught up on her life.

By seventeen, Modiano’s relationships with women have become more realistic and much more complex.  On one occasion he leaves the Haute-Savoie, where he is in boarding school, and heads to Paris, where he appears  at his mother’s apartment, only to discover that his mother has moved out.  He spends two weeks living with the woman who has moved in, going to a cabaret at night and accompanying her and an actor friend who might have been part of the parapolice group involved in the Algerian War.  By age nineteen he is living in Paris, where he becomes friends with Genevieve Dalame, a woman he has met at an occult bookstore.  Through Genevieve, he also meets Madeleine Peraud, who lives in a elegant apartment where she, Genevieve, and a secret society practice “magic” with a group, which may or may not be a cult connected with George Ivanovich Girdjieff, “a spiritual teacher.” Mysteries surround all these people, their lives, and their motives, and Genevieve Dalame’s eventual disappearance is a warning sign that things may not be as they appear.  Other people enter, then leave Modiano’s life, and one person threatens him, forcing him to use violence to escape.  Years later, he seeks out some of these people and places, often finding surprising connections among them.

hotel alcina

The Hotel Alcina in Montmartre, where the speaker and Mme. Huberson lived for the summer in 1965.

One person, Madame Hubersen, is someone he wants to erase from his memory permanently, though he tells himself that his relationship with her in 1965, when he is twenty, “is all so far in the past that it’s covered by what the law calls amnesty.”  Other references to “witnesses” and “the statute of limitations” confirm the suggestions that something terrible – and possibly illegal – happened with Madame Huberson, and that he is seriously involved.  Living at the Hotel Alsina in Montmartre with her for the rest of the summer, he is not sure what his future holds, but he reads many books about the occult and about psychology in an effort to come to terms with what has happened and might yet happen to her and to him.  Still subject to upsetting memories, he finds Hervey de Saint-Denys’s book Dreams and How to Direct Them to be particularly helpful in redirecting his daydreams, his fears, his occasional panic, and his obsessions.

Leon Hervey dd Saint-Denys's Dreams and How to Direct Them

Leon d’Hervey de Saint-Denys’s Dreams and How to Direct Them, a book that the speaker found very helpful during his fraught time in 1965.

As Modiano sorts through his memories and opens up more and more to the reader, he is coming to terms with his own needs and the decisions he has made in his life, even as early as age seventeen.  Though he is on his own during those years, he is, however, intelligent, sensitive, and, most importantly, literate and talented in writing, which eventually sees him through some of the most difficult situations a young adult could ever face alone.  He is quick to tell us that a turning point occurred about five years after the events with Madame Hubersen:  “I was living in Montmartre…with the woman I loved.  The neighborhood was not the same.  Neither was I….The Montmartre of summer 1965, as I thought I envisioned it in memory, suddenly seemed to me an imaginary Montmartre.  And I no longer had anything to fear.” Thirty years ago, he says, he blended some of the details of that terrifying summer into a novel so that “no one would know whether they belonged to reality or the realm of dreams,”  and though one could also say that we do not know how much of what Modiano says here about the episode with Mme Hubersen is real and how much is fiction, it feels absolutely real, as do the fear and the sense of guilt. This is Modiano’s most personal and revelatory book, one which his fans will appreciate, while they may also be left wondering….




Photos.  The photo of the author as a young man is from https://www.pinterest.com

The author as a mature man is from http://www.grreporter.info/en/

The Hotel Alcina in Montmartre, where the speaker and Mme. Hubersen lived for the summer may be found here:  http://intentionalmama.com/

The sign from the botanical gardens and zoo, where the speaker met Genevieve Dalame six years after the events of his teen years appears on http://intentionalmama.com/

The panoramic photo of Montmartre  is found here:  https://propertylistings.ft.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Coming-of-age, France, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Yale University Press
Date Published: 10/16/2018
ISBN: 978-0300238303
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This novel was WINNER of the 2017 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious prize.

“The sun is a cold star.  Its heart, spines of ice.  Its light, unforgiving.  In February, the trees are dead, the river petrified…Time stands still.  In the morning, not a sound, not even birdsong.  Then an automobile, and another, and suddenly footsteps, unseen silhouettes….Through doors obsequiously held open, [the shadows] step from their huge black sedans and parade in single file…and enter the large vestibule of the palace of the President of the Assembly.” – Berlin, February 20, 1933.

cover order dayEric Vuillard’s latest prizewinner opens with the secret arrival of twenty-four wealthy industrialists at the Berlin palace of the President of the Assembly in 1933.  Bearing names like Krupp, Opel, Siemens, and Vogler, these gentlemen have answered the call of Hermann Goering on behalf of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis to “help put an end to a weak regime, ward off the communist menace, eliminate trade unions, and allow every entrepreneur to be the fuhrer of his own shop.”  Elections are coming in two weeks, and the Nazi Party has no money to spend to promote their position.  “Time to pony up, gentlemen” is the appeal.  In an unprecedented compromise with the Nazis, “Most of the guests immediately hand over hundreds of thousands of marks, Gustav Krupp gives a million, Georg von Schnitzler four hundred thousand, and so they rake in a hefty sum.”

Author Eric Vuillard after winning the Prix Goncourt for this book in 2017.

Author Eric Vuillard after winning the Prix Goncourt for this book in 2017.

Four years later, in November, 1937, the elections are long over, Germany is unified under its Nazi goals, and the regime’s only real threat is from foreign powers.  The Saarland has been annexed, the Rhineland has been remilitarized, Guernica has been bombed, the Reichstag has been made defunct, and the Nazis “have abandoned all self-restraint.”  When Lord Halifax is sent as an envoy from England to Berlin to meet with Hermann Goering in 1937, the author expresses his conviction that Lord Halifax had to have been fully aware of the dangers Hitler represented to the rest of Europe and cognizant of Goering’s mental instability: his sinister allusions, his morphine addiction, his raving egomania, his diagnoses of psychological disorder and depression, and his violent, sometimes suicidal, tendencies.  The author, however, also points out the cruel limitations in Lord Halifax’s own makeup.  His direct ancestors opposed aiding the Irish during the potato famine that left a million dead, and Halifax himself has stated publicly that “Racialism is a powerful force…neither unnatural nor immoral.”  The author believes that Halifax’s callousness is “the result of social blindness and arrogance,” yet it is Halifax who is the British envoy sent to deal with the Nazis as they plan to invade Austria.

Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria, March 21, 1938.

Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria, March 21, 1938.

In February, 1938, Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria, is called to Berlin to meet with Adolph Hitler.  Here author Vuillard focuses on the interplay between the two men, stressing a “childish outburst” in which the Fuhrer announces proudly that he plans to build “the largest bridge in the world,” and then put up “the tallest buildings in the world,” and eventually build “much bigger and better houses than in the United States.”  As Hitler declares his intentions to conjoin Germany and Austria politically on the national level, he also abandons all pretense, clearly illustrating that there is “only one art of persuasion, only one means of getting what you want: fear – [and] in this house fear was what prevailed.”  After two hours of discussion and the inclusion of Germany’s Ribbentrop and von Papen in the conversation, Germany announces its own terms of “agreement” between it and Austria.  Germany will impose the National Socialist doctrine on all of Austria, and control all aspects of the government through the appointment of Austrian sympathizers and the replacement of Austrian propaganda ministers with German ones. Its recognition of Austria’s sovereignty and independence are purely decorative.  As preparations for the Blitzkrieg get underway, there is virtually nothing von Schuschnigg can do to stop it.

German troops cross the border into Austria, March 12, 1938.

German troops cross the border into Austria, March 12, 1938.

Throughout this work, author Vuillard stresses the games played by officials on both sides, the bluffs, the extreme positions, and the lies designed to sway populations.  As the Germans begin their invasion of Austria, they quickly become aware that the tanks and other war materiel they plan to display throughout the march from the German border to Vienna are inoperable, broken. They simply pack everything up, put it on trains, and send it through the Austrian countryside by rail.  Its appearance alone is enough to scare the population into submission.  Having described in detail the means and methods by which the Nazis took over both the German population and the population of Austria and elsewhere, the author says little about the war itself, focusing instead on the Nuremberg trials after the war to show more details about propaganda methods, how they were imposed, and the excuses which war criminals offered, if any, in defense of their crimes.

The Nuremberg Trials began on November 20, 1945. In this picture, the man on the farthest left is Hermann Goering. Convicted and sentences to death, he committed suicide the night before the hanging was to be carried out.

The Nuremberg Trials began on November 20, 1945. In this picture, the man on the farthest left is Hermann Goering.  Convicted and sentenced to death, he committed suicide the night before the hanging was to be carried out.

Author Vuillard compresses many years of wartime study into a novella-length book which shows how Hitler, an ordinary person with an unalterable goal, could affect the lives of so many other ordinary people through persuasion, fear, and raw power.  By also incorporating some cultural elements into the book, such as the music of Beethoven, Bruckner, Haydn, Lizst, and Mozart, and the work of an artist, Louis Soutter, Vuillard incorporates surprising details which expand his themes and make them more inclusive.  His stylistic excellence – from nearly romantic descriptions to hard reality – allows him to keep his focus literary, and to explore images of light and dark, warmth and cold, and the passage of time, while also expressing his conviction that “We never fall twice into the same abyss.  But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”  Guilt, innocence, and ignorance get the full treatment here as Eric Vuillard brings life to the years leading up to the Second World War, and readers will be astonished by the breadth and depth of history which this author achieves within this very compressed work.

Photos.  The author photo appears on  https://www.practicaespanol.com/

The Time magazine cover is from http://content.time.com/

Germany’s entrance into Austria is shown on http://content.time.com

The Nuremberg Trials, showing Hermann Goering at the farthest left in this photo, are described and illustrated here:  https://www.boerner.net/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Austria, England, Germany,
Written by: Eric Vuillard
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 09/25/2018
ISBN: 978-1590519691
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Kate Atkinson was WINNER of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), and was twice WINNER of the Costa Award, its renamed successor, for Life After Life (2013) and A God in Ruins (2015). 

“Chatter and gossip, a lot of it, yet somehow more alarming because of that.  The willingness of seemingly ordinary people to bring any scrap of information [to the Gestapo] if they thought it would help the enemy cause.  The main characters in this cast of perfidy…[all] reported on a myriad others, filaments in an evangelistic web of treachery that stretched across the country.” –  description of British Fascism, 1940.

cover transcriptionIn the opening scene of Kate Atkinson’s new novel about the UK’s espionage during World War II, a sixty-year-old woman, “Miss Armstrong,” is lying in the street, badly injured after being hit by a car.  It is 1981, and this woman has recently returned to England from Italy, where she has lived for years.  She assumes that the paramedics have found her purse because they are calling her by name, and as she lies there, waiting for help, she is thinking about the Shostakavich concert she has just attended at the Royal Albert Hall.  She thinks about her twenty-six-year-old son, Matteo, the result of a brief liaison with an Italian musician, and about the fact that flags currently adorn the main streets in London because a royal wedding is imminent.  She is aware that up the road “a sacrificial virgin is being prepared to satisfy the need for pomp and circumstance.”  Though she is just sixty years old, and “had probably [lived] a long enough life, suddenly it all seemed an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else.  What an odd thing existence was.” 

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 28: Costa Novel Award Winner Kate Atkinson attends the Costa Book of the Year awards at Quaglino's on January 28, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Author Kate Atkinson. Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

As if this scene of a woman, Juliet Armstrong, contemplating her life after an unexplained  accident is not enough of a “hook” to draw readers into the story from the beginning, author Atkinson then flashes back to 1950, introducing the next chapter “in the middle of things” in London.  Juliet Armstrong, then thirty years old, is walking in the city when she sees a man she knows well, someone for whom she worked in the 1940s.  When she approaches this man, “Mr. Toby,” to say hello, however, she is met with an annoyed, blank stare  – no sign of recognition whatsoever.  Having established two mysteries – Juliet Armstrong’s pedestrian accident in 1981, and the failure of a man in 1950 to acknowledge his life in 1940 – Atkinson then flashes back to develop the character and background of Juliet Armstrong.  Juliet, the reader learns, had been tapped to work for the national spy agency MI5 while also working at the BBC in 1940.   At the end of the war, she continued to work at the BBC while Godfrey Toby, her former boss at MI5, disappeared – to Europe or New Zealand, she thought.

Dolphin Square. where MI5 set up an apartment to spy on fifth column members supporting the Gestapo.

Dolphin Square, where MI5 set up an apartment to spy on fifth column members supporting the Gestapo.

In shifting time periods, Juliet first begins to “come alive” for the reader when she enters Moretti’s Cafe in 1950, a place she had patronized during the war and which suddenly inspires vivid memories for her. Her mother had died in a nearby hospital while Juliet was eating her lunch at Moretti’s one day.  “Her mother had [always] represented a form of truth for her, something that Juliet knew she had moved away from in the decade since her mother’s death.”  As she sits at Moretti’s experiencing flashbacks to her earlier life during the war, Juliet fingers a string of pearls around her neck.  “The pearls at her neck were not Juliet’s; she had taken them from the body of a dead woman.  Death was a truth, too, of course, because it was an absolute….Best not to think about that.”  Still she cannot avoid thinking about Godfrey Toby and the past.  After all, “together they had committed a hideous act, the kind of thing that binds you to someone forever, whether you like it or not.  Was that why he had denied her now?  Or was that why he had come back?”  Having now established several new mysteries for the reader to ponder, Atkinson continues to develop Juliet’s life through flashbacks, including her work with Godfrey Toby.

Trent Park House, where MI5 interrogators held and imprisoned Nazis during World War II. The man who interviewed Juliet for MI5 ran this program.

Trent Park House, where MI5 interrogators held and imprisoned Nazis during World War II. The man who interviewed Juliet for her job at MI5 worked here sometimes.

In 1940 Godfrey Toby was an MI5 official posing as an agent of the German government, and he had been in “deep cover” for years, attending Fascist meetings throughout the 1930s and becoming well known to the “fifth column” and other Fascist sympathizers and subversives in England –  including the Right Club, the Imperial Fascist League, and the British Union of Fascists members.  Instead of rooting them out, the government’s plan was always to let them flourish “but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.”  Under Godfrey Toby in 1940, MI5 acquires two flats, side-by-side in Dolphin Square to which fascist informants come to report every week.  Feeling completely safe with Godfrey, whom they believe to be a Gestapo agent working for the Nazis, the fascists chat each week at his flat, unaware that microphones and recording devices are  buried in the walls.  Within twenty-four hours of their chats,  someone transcribes those conversations.  That person is Juliet, who has also been assigned the job of befriending some of the female members of the fifth column in an effort to learn even more about them.  

Camera used by newsreel companies during WW2.

Camera used by the BBC and newsreel companies during WW2.

Most of the action, including everything having to do with Juliet’s MI5 group and her social life, takes place in the 1940s – in the first half of the novel.  At the mid-point of the novel, the action shifts to 1950 and Juliet’s later career at the BBC as Program Producer for a series called “Past Lives.”  More generalized and less compelling, this second half deals with issues other than World War II, and many of the key characters from the 1940 section disappear from the action. The second half does gain some momentum when Juliet receives an anonymous and unexplained message, “You will pay for what you did.” While  Juliet does ask herself some questions and does try to find answers in 1950, these scenes lack the intensity of the war-time years. and they feel as if they should have been edited and compressed.  Thematically, the novel is a study of illusion and truth, especially during World War II, as virtually everyone is living a lie during that time and its immediate aftermath.  In the 1950s section, the novel has less intensity, and while it does have some moments of dark irony, the tension in this part peters out without the kind of thematic resolution one would expect from the subject and its forty-year time span.  Fans of Atkinson’s work will probably enjoy the novel’s insights into British fascism, though newcomers to her writing might prefer to start with Life After Life, or A God in Ruins.

ALSO by Kate Atkinson, reviewed here:    CASE HISTORIES (Jackson Brodie mystery #1),     A GOD IN RUINS   LIFE AFTER LIFE,     ONE GOOD TURN (Jackson Brodie mystery #2),     STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG (Jackson Brodie mystery #4),      WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? (Jackson Brodie mystery #3)

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://articlebio.com

Dolphin Square, where MI5 set up an apartment to spy on fifth column members supporting the Gestapo is seen here:  https://www.alamy.com/

The Trent Park House, where Germans were interrogated during World War II in England, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The Camera used by the BBC and newsreel companies during World War II is here: http://www.golden-agetv.co.uk/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Kate Atkinson
Published by: Little, Brown
Date Published: 09/25/2018
ISBN: 978-0316176637
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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