Non-Fiction, Reviews

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor (2011)

10599155

image via goodreads.com

She-Wolves was one of those books that I had heard about for ages, and kept meaning to read, but for some reason never got around to – laziness, too many other books to read, a million reasons. So I decided to put it on my wish list for Christmas and birthday books last year, and luckily I received it for Christmas. I’d been meaning to read some more about Elizabeth I (I also asked for, and received, Helen Castor’s biography of her), so I particularly liked the idea of reading about some of the women who came before her, especially as I had little knowledge of that period of English history.

I had heard of some of the women covered in this book, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it was wonderful to actually learn some details about their lives and especially their roles in the politics and rule of England. Castor makes it clear throughout that what we know of these women comes largely through the fact that they were associated with famous and powerful men, as mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters. She makes it clear there are limited sources of information on these women and so you have to make the most out of what is available, and link it to the extensive sources on the men and the wider history in order to get the full picture. There are also plenty of gaps in the narrative when nothing ‘important’ was happening in these women’s lives. I loved this exploration of how we learn about historical figures, and women especially, and what the historian has to do to piece together a story. Castor readily acknowledges that it is particularly difficult to get a real picture of any of these women’s personalities as they left little or no writings of their own, especially nothing personal, and reports of their behaviour or actions might be tainted by opinions and hearsay. So while we can learn about the bigger picture, it is harder to dig down into the personal, smaller details of relationships and individual experiences.

This is true of a lot of history, especially of certain periods, but for me it became more of an issue with She-Wolves because because by the time I got to Isabella of France, all these women started to sound rather similar. I can appreciate the difficulty of getting a complete picture of personalities, as Castor explains, but I think this was compounded in She-Wolves by the fact that the book tells the stories of four different women – so the same problem occurs each time. The scant information means that while there are some small differences, each woman is described in much the same way, as ‘strong’ and ‘fierce’, protective over their children and homelands. The biggest changes between each story were the circumstances and the relationships with men. It is also inevitable that the men’s stories take the foreground sometimes, as they were the ones making the decisions and affecting change (with a few exceptions).

So while I did enjoy She-Wolves, I found it a bit frustrating and almost wished that Castor had published four short books about each of the women rather than putting them all together in one volume. Nevertheless I very much appreciate that it’s an important book and it’s wonderful that that these women have been given the attention they deserve. Castor is an excellent writer and I will certainly be reading her biography of Elizabeth I, which I’m sure will be brilliant.

*

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber (paperback edition pictured above). Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

Advertisements
Standard
Fiction, Reviews

Reading and watching: Room by Emma Donoghue

IMG_7562

2010 Picador paperback edition

Room is one of those books that ’caused a stir’ when it came out, and everyone was talking about it. I always meant to read it, but never got round to it; and then the movie trailers came out. It was time to read the book before seeing the film!

I whizzed through the book in two or three days – partly because my copy has a pretty big font, but also because it is just gripping. Room is one of the most intense books I have ever read. Even when not much was happening, you could feel the tension.

I was worried it would be really grim, and there are some unpleasant moments and scenes; but overall it is not a depressing book. The first half, when Jack and Ma are still trapped, is very claustrophobic, and you can feel Ma’s despair. But once they get out, the  book is uplifting despite their difficulties, and it feels hopeful. At the end of the story they are able to take a big step towards closure, and you can see how things will be alright. Life will still be hard at times and imperfect, but they can get through it together.

I really admire Emma Donoghue, not only for the intense and vivid quality of her writing and her story, but also for her willingness to immerse herself in such a surreal and sometimes unpleasant world. I can imagine that the writing process was sometimes overwhelming, and certainly emotional – it is definitely those things for the reader. Her sheer commitment to Jack’s narrative voice deserves high praise. It is entirely believable, and it almost hurts when you can see that he doesn’t understand certain things, or why his Ma is sad.

It is one of those books that you don’t necessarily ‘enjoy’ because of the subject matter – rather you appreciate the skill of the writer and the complexity of the work, and are impressed by it. You are engaged by the story and compelled to keep reading. It is a story of deep human interest, from a position of concern and fear but also a degree of sensationalism and a desire for things to work out and end on a positive note – which, luckily, they do. I wouldn’t say to someone, “I really enjoyed this book”, I would say, “This is a really good book.” There is a subtle but distinct difference between the two.

As for the film, I was happy in the knowledge that Donoghue wrote the script, and so I knew it would be true to the book, and it was. Having read the book only a few days before seeing the film, it was all still fresh and real in my mind, and perhaps this is why I cried so much in the cinema. As Hannah of Ponderous Pieces says in her lovely review of the film here, “this is a film about love, motherhood and what it means to be free.” I think that’s why it feels so emotional.

Room_Poster

2016 movie poster. (image via wikipedia.org)

The idea of being constrained and trapped in every aspect of your life is just awful, and the intensity of Jack and Ma’s escape is palpable. As with the book, I held my breath as Jack escapes, and welled up when he saw the sky for the first time. The young actor who plays Jack, Jacob Tremblay, is simply wonderful. He conveys the simplicity of being a child coupled with the complicated nature of his situation and the confusing feelings he experiences. He is also ridiculously cute, and this makes you warm to him as Jack even more.

Brie Larson blew me away as Ma – her performance is a lesson in contained emotion, and she acts with her eyes more than anything else (if that makes sense). She was just as Ma is in the book, and I just felt all her sadness at once. Even though the film is told mostly from Jack’s perspective, like in the book, there are some excellent little moments when you see things more as Ma sees them, often without any words, and the scope of their situation suddenly feels all too real.

If you liked the book, I highly recommend you see the film, as you won’t be disappointed. And I’d recommend the film even if you haven’t read the book, because it is fantastic on its own. I went to see it with my mum, who hasn’t read the book, and she loved it too, and was very impressed by the depiction of Ma and her relationship with Jack.

It’s an emotional ride, but worth it in the end.

*

Room was originally published by Picador (UK) in 2011. The film adaptation is in cinemas now. You can purchase a copy of Room from Foyles here.

 

 

Standard
Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin (2009)

I came across The Blue Tattoo by chance, when author Peggy Riley tweeted about it (so long ago that I’m afraid I can’t find the original tweet). As soon as I heard about it I knew I wanted to read it.

Uni. of Nebraska Press/Bison Books edition, 2011. (image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

It was unlike anything I had ever read before, but it instantly appealed to me. My only real ‘knowledge’, if it can be called that, of Native American and Pioneer interactions came from hammy Westerns, The Simpsons, and the terrifying murals in Parks and Recreation. I also knew little about America in general during the 19th century apart from basic facts about western migration and the Civil War – the former being a key factor in The Blue Tattoo.

It is the story of Olive Oatman, someone I will never be able to forget. In 1851 Olive was fourteen years old and on the road to a Mormon utopia in the west. Isolated from the rest of their caravan, her family were attacked by a native tribe. Her brother Lorenzo survived the attack by being so wounded that the tribe thought he was dead; they spared Olive, and her young sister Mary Ann, and took them captive.

The attacking tribe were the Yavapais. They soon traded Olive and Mary Ann to the Mohaves, who were kind and treated them well. The girls stayed with the Mohaves for the best part of five years, though little Mary Ann succumbed to malnutrition during a poor harvest which Olive only just survived. Olive was eventually traded back to ‘her people’ when Lorenzo finally tracked her down.

Olive became a sensation, going on lecture tours and having her story published in a ‘memoir’ heavily ghost-written by a pastor, Royal Stratton, who she and Lorenzo met soon after their reunion. The sections that Mifflin quotes, though written in the first person, are clearly not Olive’s own words – she refers to the Mohaves as savages and low people, despite the fact that she effectively became one of their tribe whilst living with them. The tattoo on her chin, and many other small details in her story, strongly suggest that she was just as much a Mohave as one who been born among them. They did not tattoo slaves or captives – only their own people. It was a hugely meaningful symbol of belonging, that Olive would have submitted to willingly, knowing it was permanent.

Olive shortly after her 'return' in 1856 (image: twitter.com)

Olive shortly after her ‘return’ in 1856 (image: twitter.com)

Friends and relatives reported that for years, decades, after leaving the Mohaves, Olive spoke of them fondly but seemed troubled by her memories. She paced the floor, was lost in her thoughts, and seemed to keep the truth of her story to herself. Though she spoke publicly about her experiences for years afterwards, we can of course never really know about her experience, her life, with the Mohaves.

Thinking her whole family was dead, it is understandable that she may have wanted to stay with the people who became surrogate parents and relatives for her – she was adopted by the chief and his wife, who seems to have played a significant role as a mother figure. Throughout the book there are countless small details that made me think, quite certainly, that Olive was more or less happy with the Mohaves, and it was not her first choice to leave them. Her life back with white society was at first filled with publicity (from which we have some of the best photographs of her) and public appearances, as well as various rumours, theories, and elaborations that embellished her story and speculated, sometimes damagingly, about her time with the Mohaves.

She often had to state that she had not been ‘violated’ or made ‘unclean’ by the Native Americans, and that she had retained her virtue as a good Christian girl – but Mifflin states it is entirely possible she may have been ‘sexually initiated’ within the tribe. She was a teenager after all, and the Mohaves did not shy away from sex like 19th century American Christians. Whether or not this is true, it is fascinating to consider and demonstrates the depth of mystery within Olive Oatman, and the unknowable nature of other people’s experiences. It is one of many, many things that we can only wonder about Olive.

Aside from Olive’s own story, Mifflin brilliantly pulls together stories similar to Olive’s (such as those of Cynthia Ann Parker and Mary Jemison), and the complicated ways in which she and people like her, different in whatever way, were perceived by society. The book is also an examination of America as a developing nation, with states still forming and national identity still being forged. It is utterly fascinating, almost as much as Olive’s story. There is more than I can really, fairly, convey here.

Olive’s story is unique, but not isolated. Other people were kidnapped by Native Americans, for centuries before her, and during her own time. She however, has stuck in our collective mind, and her inclusion in books, film, TV shows, short stories and more since her time with the Mohaves has meant that she has stayed on the cultural radar in some small way ever since she first became famous in the 1860s. I cannot explain any of this as well as Margot Mifflin, so it is better, of course, to read The Blue Tattoo and delve into this incredible story yourself. I could analyse this book for hours, and it is without a doubt one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.

*

Published by the University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books in 2009, and reprinted in 2011.

 

Standard
Fiction, Guest Posts, Reviews

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Guest Post)

This is a guest post written by Hannah Gillow Kloster.

2011 cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

2011 cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

As a huge fan of Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous works, I was looking forward to reading his latest major novel, The Marriage Plot. On its blurb, the book purports to be about an English Major writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, whilst around her deconstructionism is performing a revolution in English departments all over the world; so far, so good. However, for a book that studies the enormous gap between the safe, formulaic literature of the nineteenth century and the cutting-edge literary and philosophy scene of early eighties academia, it is remarkably un-ironic about it’s own throw-backism.

The blurb continues to state that ‘As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different suitors, intervenes’. The positive thing about this is that at least the blurb does not exaggerate. Madeleine does very little other than study her literary heroines, and sit around waiting for love to intervene. There is very little active searching for love on her part. It hits her, not even like a ton of bricks, more like a handful of not very large pebbles. And as her brilliant, erratic, mentally unstable boyfriend Leonard continues to be of increasingly unsound mind, she mooches around waiting for him to be a) the brilliant man she fell in love with and b) off his meds so they can have sex. But unlike Homer’s Penelope, one of the female literary heroines to which Eugenides compares her, she doesn’t even seem to have free will, much less a plan.

I am not ashamed to say I was one of the many English students whose justification for studying literature was “well, I mean, I love reading and I love the classics, like, I read Jane Austen when I was ten and it was sooo good”. However, I, like most English students, both grew out of Jane Austen, and embraced her extreme irony and her not-really-emancipated-but-one-could-argue-that-they-are women. Madeleine seems to have done neither. And much like Austen herself was criticised for ignoring the world around her (notably the fact that Napoleon was on a rampage throughout most of her writing life), Madeleine seems oblivious to most of the developments that have taken place since the early eighteen hundreds, (apart from the fact that women are allowed to want sex. She got that part. But quickly forgets it again when her man is feeling unsexy and chubs and needs her to take care of him).

Unsurprisingly, there is also a third part to this love affair – the intellectual, insecure, religious, bare-footed (and oh-so-ironically named) Mitchell Grammaticus. Yes. He has lusted over Madeleine from afar for most of his academic life, while she places him firmly in the friend zone. I guess one could say he is channelling a bit of Mr. Collins. But his place in the novel seems less about challenging Madeleine and Leonard’s romance, and more about giving Eugenides’ a chance to poke some harmless fun at middle-class boys who “find inner peace” and embrace religious mysticism, but only until their money runs out and they come back from India to return to real life. Much like Eugenides’ take on English lit graduate Madeleine, Grammaticus is disappointingly cliché.

Though it contains good moments, witticisms, and nails quite a few of the characters one would traditionally find in an English department, The Marriage Plot lacks the poignancy and extreme insight of Eugenides’ earlier works. Furthermore, considering that a large part of the audience for this novel, or so I suspect, will be English Literature graduates such as myself, they will not find many shocking or powerful truths. At best, The Marriage Plot is a fond if ridiculing nostalgia-trip to the days of pretentious fellow students and hungover seminars. At worst, though, it is a remarkably ‘unfeministic’ portrait of an exceptionally dull girl, with even less of an inner life than Miss Jane Bennett, who I think all English literature students will agree is dull indeed.

*

Published in the UK by Fourth Estate in October 2011.

 

 

Standard
Non-Fiction, Reviews

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

11395597

(image: goodreads.com)

The dictionary defines ‘truth‘ as several different things, the first of which is ‘quality or state of being true’, which seems logical enough. However, it also defines ‘truth’ as ‘honesty; sincerity; genuineness’. These are the aspects of truth that apply most to what one may call a human truth – the truth of things as one person experienced them. Historical truth and human truth are two very different things – the former being closer to what we may call a fact, the latter being a subjective experience affected by the influences of memory. Facts are distorted in our memories as we surround them with emotional associations and issues – sometimes we do not remember things as they were but rather how we think they were – and so each person will have their own version of events.

Things that happened a long time ago that for one reason or another have great emotional significance to us are most subject to the effects of memory distortion. This does not necessarily mean that our memories change facts or make us remember things inaccurately; rather it means that we remember them subject to our own emotional experience. What we say is true to us because, as the dictionary says, we are being honest, sincere and genuine. It’s just that someone else might remember it differently – perhaps more literally.

As a writer Jeanette Winterson has always liked to play with ideas of truth and reality. Her novel The Passion is a wonderful example of this, as the characters negotiate their way through their lives, telling things only as they remember them. What they say is true but they do not necessarily tell the truth. Truth can also change over time. Our view of past events changes as we grow up and change within in ourselves. This is the case with childhood memories especially. As we get older we see that our parents are only people trying to make the right decisions and make their way through life. They are flawed and vulnerable, just like we are. Time affects memory.

Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was published in 1985 to great acclaim and several awards. Given that the main character is a girl named Jeanette who discovers she is a lesbian growing up in a small town in the north of England with a fiercely religious mother, people assumed the text was largely autobiographical. Winterson disputed this to no avail and it is now an accepted fact that the novel is ‘semi-autobiographical’. The truth, but not the whole truth. In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Winterson states that one of the reasons she wrote the story of her childhood (or, at least, some of it) as a novel was because she was sick of the assumption that female writers only wrote about love stories and ‘what they knew’. Winterson wrote about what she knew but she elaborated upon it and made it her own version – she did not simply tell the story of what happened to her when she was a child. Instead she made her own life into an amazing novel full of fantasy and strangeness that was not just a simple story. As her career progressed and more books were published, it became clear to the reading public that nothing is just a simple story with Winterson. Everything has layers of truth and perception that are specific to each character and each reader, everything can be interpreted in more than one way.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the story of what really happened; well, as much as Winterson will allow. There is certainly more detail and she is more frank about the reality of life with her parents in Accrington in the 1970s and 80s. We hear the full story of her mother’s reaction to her homosexuality and indeed her own exploration of it. This is not simply, however, a book about her childhood. It was not written simply to define the fact from the fiction in Oranges. It is greater than that. The blurb states that it is about a ‘tough-minded search for belonging, for love, an identity, a home, and a mother.’ This is the great search of Winterson’s life, and I suspect of many others’. These things she is/was searching for are the things that we all take for granted, that we all assume everyone has by default, but that a shocking number of people do not have. Winterson does not ask for sympathy or pity, and she does not wallow in the tragic drama of life with her adoptive mother. In this sense she is a writer of truth. She is honest and sincere. She refers to her mother as ‘Mrs Winterson’, displaying the distance felt and the lack of familiarity with the woman who raised her. Calling her mother Mrs Winterson also places the name ‘Winterson’ outside of herself – though it is her name it does not belong to her and she does not belong to it. She is a Winterson and yet she is not. Popping up throughout the text, references to ‘Mrs Winterson’ are barefaced reminders of our author’s lack of self-definition and her acute awareness that she did not belong to the Wintersons – and yet they were all she had.

In her search for the most vital aspects of life, she discovers literature at her local library. The story of her relationship with books and reading is genuinely lovely and moving, as she hides them under her mattress until her bed is suspiciously high, and Mrs Winterson finds them and burns them in the garden. This does not deter the young Jeanette however, as she determines that she can write her own stories. And so it began. She talks in great detail about how she relates to the acts of reading and writing and the power they have. She compares opening a book to opening a door to another place into which one can step and escape from the outside world; writing is a more intense version of this, creating the other world oneself, creating one’s own escape. She did this through writing and she did this through telling her mother that she was gay and leaving home when she was sixteen. Her mother asked her to leave, but she did not resist – she knew she had to go if she was to become herself in her true form.

Thus this is a book about all the things in life that help to us to find our identity and the place where we belong; and literature is incredibly vital in this process. Anyone who knows and loves Winterson’s work will understand how transporting her writing can be and the significance this has not only to the reader but to the author as well. Happiness is a transitory thing, but our love of books may be one of the most important factors in our search. Winterson understands this fact, and tries to convey it to her readers through her own tragic, dramatic, exciting and moving story. Everything she says is true.

Published in the UK in 2011 by Jonathan Cape.

 

Standard
Fiction, Reviews

Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier

2011 Atlantic Books cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

For his first novel, originally published in Germany in 1995 and only now being published in English, Pascal Mercier chose the academic world of linguistics as the background for the story. More specifically he chose a small group of professors meeting for a conference on the Italian east coast, in a seaside town not far from Genoa. Phillip Perlmann, a German professor, is our central character, the catalyst for the arrangement of the conference by his academic acquaintance and admirer Carlo Angelini. Recently widowed and obviously still suffering from the loss both consciously and sub-consciously (the latter becomes apparent in later stages of the book), he has had a long career but finds himself devoid of inspiration when it comes to writing a paper to present at the conference. He has also recently been invited to Princeton University in America, and will become an honorary citizen of the town during the Italian conference. This problem is the crux of the story – along with the fact that a Russian academic (Leskov) is unable to attend the conference but has sent the Russian manuscript of his work to Perlmann in advance. As Perlmann becomes increasingly nervous and desperate about his having ‘nothing to say’ he sits in his hotel room arduously translating the Russian text into English.

This task takes him almost half the 616-page novel. Having been told by the blurb that Perlmann’s fear and desperation lead him to an attempt to plagiarise Leskov’s text, by the time he comes to make the decision the reader knows it has been coming for some time. By the middle of the book the narrative has seriously begun to drag – Perlmann has become so neurotic and self-indulgent that one begins to find it hard to sympathise, though his situation is clearly dire.

Mercier is also self-indulgent. Page after page is dedicated to Perlmann’s anxiety and the act of moping in his hotel room and showering more than is surely necessary. His semi-reliance on sleeping pills seems superfluous, as if by having him depend on them (mentally at least) Mercier is trying to create a deeper personality that does not really exist, perhaps not even within the author’s mind. One begins to question Mercier’s skill as a writer – possibly the worst things a reader can doubt.

The novel is a little over 600 pages and one wonders whether this length is really necessary. The blurb’s synopsis suggests a depth of intrigue and thiller-esque tension, but this is simply not sustained beyond the first 100 pages, if that. The sheer length of this text seems to exhaust the author and protagonist as well as the reader – the story and the writing both begin to flag somewhere between 200 and 300 pages into the book. Momentum slows and seems to drag at the moment when the tension should be at its highest. Perlmann’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, but the reader becomes increasingly uninterested.

By the third section of the book and the coming conclusion, one does not really care about Perlmann at all anymore and is frankly relieved that this overly long text is coming to an end. Again we are given pages and pages of Perlmann worrying and waiting, counting the time until this or that happens. Again both author and character are self-indulgent and neurotic.

This is a promising novel and has moments of some truly beautiful prose – mostly early on – and it is no surprise that it was a bestseller throughout Europe in the 1990s. However, the rambling and indulgent plot structure overwhelm the skill of the writer that lies beneath the obsessional detailing of Perlmann’s worries and neuroses.

*

Published in October 2011 by Atlantic Books. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Standard
Fiction, Reviews

Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (2011)

2011 Henry Holt cover. Image: goodreads.com

(image: goodreads.com)

Stella Tillyard is primarily an historian; it is therefore unsurprising that Tides of War, her debut foray into fiction, encapsulates every aspect of the Peninsula War of 1812 – 1815 from the social impact in England to the daily life of the soldiers fighting in Spain. The novel’s title is extremely fitting, though at first it may sound generically ominous. Once the reader is at least half way through the book, if that, it becomes clear that this is not simply a sensationalist historical novel written to excite our mundane selves with details of the gore and glory of warfare; rather it is a study of the ripple effect, if you will, of war. Tides influence the moon, the shape of the land, and the look of a beach; there are endless small things – both physical and abstract – that the tide can affect. In Tillyard’s novel, the Peninsula War is the same.

We begin with the newly married Harriet Raven. As Tillyard states on her website, the point at which literary heroines are married is usually when their story ends; but it is the opposite with Harriet. Once she is married to Captain James Raven, her life takes several unexpected turns. Her friendship with and interest in the work of Frederick Winsor (one of Tillyard’s characters taken from history) makes her something of a symbol of England’s desire, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, for progress in both the social and scientific arenas. This seems to have, in part, been Tillyard’s aim with the book. The activities of the soldiers’ wives left at home is an aspect of the book that reminds the reader of Jane Austen – they sit and chat, making a quilt together – but the inclusion of scientific progress and the unconventionality of some aspects of their lives means that Tillyard is taking us beyond Austen’s portrait of the Regency woman.

The novel is told in the third person (aside from a short section at the beginning of Part Three narrated by Francisco Goya, seemingly for the sake of it), but the perspective travels between a whole cast of characters. Some of these are historical figures, and some are characters the author has created and placed carefully amongst history. This can be a problem in historical novels, as ‘what actually happened’ is replaced by ‘what probably/could have happened’. However, that could lead us into a whole different issue, one of the differences between truth and fact and how that relates to the telling of history. These issues are not addressed in the novel and do not need to be. Tillyard sews together her historical and fictional characters with such ease that the reader believes everything she says – how could it have happened any other way, asks the reader. The shifts in perspective are just as seamless; Tillyard uses the Austen-like technique of free indirect dialogue to perfection. Part Three sees everything apparently become more complicated. The circumstances created by the war (in both Spain and England) are left to develop and thicken. The truths of human nature and desire come through as the social and political facades begin to fall away, broken by the sweeping effects of war. Free indirect dialogue is the perfect tool for conveying all of this. Subtle changes in the tone of the narratorial voice tell the reader so much more than an exposition could, and in so much more human a way – that is, subtle and with most of the details between the lines.

There are of course also the harsh realities of war. Several shocking and disturbing scenes strip away any romantic preconceptions about the Regency period and the unerring honour of British soldiers in their smart red jackets. These are the horrific occurrences that can only happen during warfare – rape, post-traumatic stress disorder (whilst still in a warzone) and murder. There are also the horrors of everyday life that occur in the background. The dissatisfaction, disillusionment, casual cruelty and despair of unfortunate circumstances are keenly felt, seeping through the text as the characters try to maintain their stability and positivity.

Harriet’s ongoing search for her mother is a wonderful demonstration of the undercurrent of pain running through many of these characters’ lives. Her search is a little sporadic and the limitations of her gender and status are subtly displayed. The normality of these limitations on her society is so commonplace that it is somehow even more tragic. Harriet seems to be trapped in an endless number of ways.

Tides of War is filled with many people, events and things, as well as themes for the reader; but the essence and source of all this is quite neatly summed up by one of the characters, Dr David McBride.

War never finishes, [David thought], and never will. It simply moves about the world like the ocean current that touches now one country, now another. Why? Because in the same way that a rash upon the skin is merely a symptom of a fever that rages in the body underneath, war is only the visible shape of all the forces that nature has planted in us. To declare peace; to think it is ever possible? All that is folly.

*

Published in 2011, in the UK by Chatto & Windus, and in the US by Henry Holt Publishing. My copy was kindly provided by Henry Holt for review.

Standard