The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

The Eustace Diamonds Today is Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday! When I saw that Karen of Books and Chocolate was hosting a special Trollope Bicentennial Celebration this month, I knew I wanted to take part and I knew exactly what I would be reading. Having read and enjoyed Trollope’s first two Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn, it made sense to continue with the third in the series – The Eustace Diamonds.

Unlike Trollope’s other set of six novels, the Chronicles of Barsetshire, which revolve around a cathedral town and the lives of the clergy, the Palliser novels have plots involving politics and featuring the Palliser family – the politician Plantagenet Palliser, his wife Lady Glencora, and his uncle, the Duke of Omnium. In The Eustace Diamonds, though, these three characters are pushed into the background. Our heroine this time (although, as Trollope himself tells us at the beginning of the book, ‘heroine’ is maybe not the right way to describe her) is Lizzie Greystock, who quickly becomes Lady Eustace when she marries the wealthy Sir Florian.

After less than a year of marriage, Sir Florian dies, leaving Lizzie a rich widow in possession of a valuable diamond necklace which she claims her husband had given to her before his death. However, the Eustace family lawyer, Mr Camperdown, insists that the diamonds belong to the Eustace estate and that Lizzie has no legal right to them. The question of the ownership of the necklace forms the central plot of the novel, as the people around Lizzie are forced to take sides. Her cousin Frank vows to support her no matter what, while Lord Fawn, who has recently proposed to her, is horrified by the scandal surrounding his fiancée and searches for a way out of the marriage.

Lizzie is selfish, she tells lies, she manipulates people and situations to her own advantage and her own aunt describes her as “false, dishonest, heartless, cruel, irreligious, ungrateful, mean, ignorant, greedy, and vile”. She is a difficult character to like (and I was sorry that Trollope doesn’t give her more redeeming features) but she is a fascinating character to read about and I loved following the twists and turns of her story.

But The Eustace Diamonds also follows other characters and other storylines. There’s Lucy Morris, a governess in the service of Lord Fawn’s mother, who is love with Lizzie’s cousin, Frank Greystock. Frank, however, is preoccupied with Lizzie and her ordeals, and it seems he is unable to give Lucy the commitment she deserves. And there’s also Lucinda Roanoke, a young woman with strong views of her own on the subject of marriage – views which don’t always agree with those of her aunt, Mrs Carbuncle.

I’m finding it difficult to decide exactly what I thought of The Eustace Diamonds. In some ways I loved it even more than the previous two Pallisers, but in others I found it the weakest of the three. I struggled a little bit with the amount of political detail in Phineas Finn, but in this book there is far less focus on politics. Instead, Trollope concentrates on relationships, on marriage, on the law, and on attitudes towards money, property and reputation. In the middle of the book, the dispute surrounding the jewels begins to go in a more sensational direction, which I did find interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking that this type of plot might have been better suited to an author like Wilkie Collins rather than Trollope.

At 800 pages I did think the book felt too long for the story that was being told. Most of Trollope’s novels are long, of course, but I’m not usually conscious of the length while I’m actually reading; this time I was. Despite being absorbed in the story, I found the plot very repetitive at times and the controversy over the ownership of the diamonds seemed to go round in circles for a while – maybe a result of the novel originally being published as a serial and needing to be drawn out over a long period of time.

I did enjoy The Eustace Diamonds overall, though – and can honestly say I haven’t read a Trollope novel yet that I haven’t enjoyed. Now I’m looking forward to catching up with Phineas Finn again in the fourth Palliser novel, Phineas Redux.

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke This is the second novel in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, was set just before the First Opium War and introduced us to a group of people who were brought together on a voyage from India to Mauritius aboard a former slaving ship. The book ended on a cliffhanger so I was pleased that I had a copy of River of Smoke to hand and wouldn’t have long to wait to find out how the story continued.

River of Smoke was not quite what I’d expected. It does continue the story, but only for two or three of the characters. The rest of them – even the ones we spent so much time with in Sea of Poppies, such as the Indian widow Deeti and the American sailor Zachary Reid – are barely mentioned in this book. The characters who do reappear are Paulette Lambert, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist, Neel Rattan Halder, the deposed Raja of Raskhali, and his Chinese friend, Ah Fatt.

In one thread of the novel, we follow Paulette as she joins forces with Fitcher Penrose, an Englishman whom she meets in the neglected botanical garden of Pamplemousses. Together, Penrose and Paulette head for Canton where, with the help of Paulette’s childhood friend, the artist Robin Chinnery, they begin a search for the mythical golden camellia.

In a separate storyline which runs parallel with the first (and quickly begins to dominate the novel), we meet Ah Fatt’s father, Bahram Modi, an opium trader from Bombay. Bahram is transporting a large cargo of opium to China and agrees to take Neel with him as his munshi, or secretary. However, when a new commissioner arrives in Canton and the opium trade is banned, Bahram and his fellow merchants face financial ruin.

Like the first novel, River of Smoke provides us with a huge amount of historical and geographical detail. As someone who previously knew almost nothing about the Opium Wars, I now have a much better knowledge of what led to the conflict and the arguments that were used by both sides. Ghosh also brings to life the sights and sounds of Fanqui-town, the Canton settlement which was home to the foreign merchants. Unfortunately one of the devices he uses to do this involves beginning each chapter with a long letter sent by Robin Chinnery to Paulette, and this was one aspect of the book that I didn’t like at all. I had no interest in Robin as a character and it felt that his sole purpose in the novel was to write these letters, giving us pages and pages of exposition that did very little to move the story forward.

I have enjoyed both of the first two books in this trilogy, but I think I liked this one slightly more than the first. I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that River of Smoke wasn’t going to be a direct continuation of Sea of Poppies, but once I had settled into the story, I found it easier to follow because it concentrated on fewer main characters. Paulette and Neel had been two of my favourites from the previous book, anyway, and of the new ones, I found Bahram Modi a particularly well written and complex character. I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for him even though what he was doing was clearly morally wrong.

The final book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire, is due to be published soon and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m hoping we’ll be able to catch up with the other characters from Sea of Poppies who didn’t feature in this one!

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

The Goddess and the Thief “A diamond. A curse. An obsession.” These are the words on the front cover of Essie Fox’s third novel and they give us a good idea of the type of story we can expect to find inside. The Goddess and the Thief is a Victorian Gothic novel (like the previous two books by this author – The Somnambulist, which I’ve read, and Elijah’s Mermaid, which I haven’t) and combines a complex plot with an atmospheric setting and a sense of mystery.

The novel begins in colonial India, where a little girl called Alice Willoughby is growing up in the care of her beloved ayah, Mini, having lost her mother in childbirth. Alice loves India – she loves the warmth, the vivid colours, the stories Mini tells of Parvati and Shiva – and is heartbroken when her father decides to take her back to England to live with her Aunt Mercy. Alice is lonely and miserable in her new home and finds Mercy cold and uncaring. Things become even worse when she discovers that her aunt is a medium and that she will be forced to take part in Mercy’s fraudulent séances and other spiritualist activities.

Alice’s life reaches another turning point when she and Mercy meet the mysterious Lucian Tilsbury, a man who has recently returned from India and is planning to involve the two women in an elaborate scheme…a scheme revolving around the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the famous jewel claimed by the British at the end of the Anglo-Sikh war. Some say the diamond is cursed and others that it is blessed, but one thing that is certain is that it exerts a strange power over everyone who comes into contact with it.

You may be thinking that this sounds like The Moonstone, but while there are some similarities with the Wilkie Collins mystery, this is a very different book and the story surrounding the diamond took some surprising twists and turns which I definitely wasn’t expecting! I was particularly intrigued by the occasional appearances of Queen Victoria and the Maharajah Duleep Singh, two people for whom the Koh-i-Noor has a very important significance.

The scenes set in India at the beginning of the book were among my favourites and I was sorry when we left India behind for the gloom of Aunt Mercy’s house in Windsor. The mood of the novel then becomes increasingly dark and oppressive and I was pleased that tales of the Hindu gods and of Alice’s life in Lahore continued to be woven into the plot. I liked Alice as a central character and enjoyed following her adventures, while also feeling afraid and worried for her as she found herself betrayed, badly treated and unsure of whom to trust.

My only problem with The Goddess and the Thief was that there were certain passages which I found confusing and difficult to follow, partly because the use of opium played a role in the story, which meant that the boundaries between reality and unreality often became blurred. I appreciate that this was done intentionally, to make Alice’s situation even more frightening, but it was the one aspect of the novel that didn’t work very well for me. Of course, it could have been my own fault for not concentrating hard enough!

Having enjoyed both this book and The Somnambulist (this one slightly more than the first, I think), I will have to read Elijah’s Mermaid soon!

The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom

The Gothic The Gothic is one of a series of books offering very short introductions to a wide variety of different topics. I have read one of the other books in this series – The Tudors – and found it a good way to gain a brief overview of a subject without going into an overwhelming amount of detail. I was attracted to this particular title because I enjoy reading Gothic novels, but the book does cover other aspects of Gothic culture as well as literature.

Nick Groom begins by explaining the history of the Goths (who originated from Germanic barbarian tribes) and how their influence spread throughout Europe. He then looks at Gothic architecture, before moving on to the more recent past and discussing the development of Gothic fiction, music, art and film. For such a short book (150 pages) it’s surprisingly comprehensive, but it really is intended to be just an introduction. If you want to explore any of the topics covered in the book in more detail, Groom gives some suggestions for further reading at the end.

This is a fascinating little book, but I don’t think it succeeds in showing how the different meanings of the term Gothic are related to each other. In the preface the author states that each of these meanings and associations are “part of a common history and occasionally share common features”, but I feel that I still don’t really understand how the Gothic culture with which we’re familiar today is connected with the original Goths of the fourth and fifth centuries. I did still enjoy reading the book, though. The chapters on literature were of particular interest to me, and as I hadn’t heard of some of the Gothic novels Groom talks about, I now have a whole list of titles to investigate!

I found the book itself very well presented (as was the other book I read, on the Tudors); the text is divided into short, manageable sections, there are some useful maps, photographs and illustrations and references are provided at the back. I think The Gothic and the other titles in the Very Short Introduction series will appeal to many different types of reader, from the student who wants to gain a general understanding before delving more deeply into one area to the non-academic reader who just wants to learn something new and interesting.

You can find a full list of all the Very Short Introductions on the Oxford University Press website.

Historical Musings #1: Do you read historical fiction?

Historical Musings Something a bit different today – and hopefully on the second Sunday of every month to come. I am conscious that my blog is, and always has been, very review-dominated and that despite experimenting with different types of weekly or monthly features in the past I have never managed to keep posting them regularly. I’m hoping that I’ll be more successful if I stick to a book-related topic that I’m particularly interested in and passionate about – and one of those topics, as will be obvious to any visitor to my blog, is historical fiction!

I have a whole list of potential ideas for future posts (and I know not everyone shares my interest in historical fiction, so some posts will be less specific to the genre than others) which include discussions, lists and recommendations. For my first post in the series, though, I just want to ask a very simple question:

Do you read historical fiction?

If you answered yes, what is it that attracts you to this genre? And if you answered no, can you tell me why not?

I enjoy reading historical fiction for many reasons. If I’m honest, one of them is purely escapism. I spend every day living in the 21st century and as I unfortunately don’t possess a time machine, I rely on books to take me somewhere different. The term ‘historical fiction’ encompasses a huge variety of books covering almost any time period, person or event you can think of, so I can usually find a book that will take me wherever and whenever I want to go!

Another reason is that reading historical fiction gives me an opportunity to learn about other times and places while also enjoying an entertaining story. I often struggle with non-fiction and find that I’m more likely to retain historical facts if they are presented to me in the form of a novel. Also, many of the themes and ideas in historical fiction are universal and timeless; understanding the past can sometimes help us to understand the present.

There are many, many other things I love about historical fiction but I’ll talk about some of those in future posts.

Now, what about you?

The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne

The Edge of Dark I enjoy reading time-slip novels; I love the sense of the supernatural, the atmosphere of mystery and suspense, and the intertwining of two lives – one past and one present. Pamela Hartshorne has written three novels of this type (the other two are Time’s Echo and The Memory of Midnight) but this one is the first I’ve had the opportunity to read. I found it an entertaining, compelling and genuinely eerie read and I’m now looking forward to going back and reading her earlier novels.

The Edge of Dark is the story of Roz Acclam who, at the beginning of the novel, is preparing to start a new job as Events Director at Holmwood House, a recently restored Elizabethan building in York. This is not the first time Roz has been to York; she lived there as a small child until most of her family died in a fire and she was adopted by an aunt in London. She remembers nothing of the fire or her tragic childhood, but almost as soon as she arrives in York, memories begin to come flooding back – the only problem is, they are not her own memories but those of another woman who lived more than four hundred years earlier.

The Edge of Dark is also the story of Jane, the eldest daughter of a butcher who lived in York in the 1500s. Jane’s father is planning ambitious marriages for both of his girls and Jane soon finds herself married off to the handsome, wealthy Robert Holmwood. Joining her new husband at Holmwood House, she discovers that married life is not quite what she’d expected and she begins to long for a child of her own. But Jane’s desire to be a mother eventually grows so strong that she makes a promise she could live to regret.

As Roz tries to settle into her new job the flashbacks into Jane’s life become more frequent and she begins to question why she is having these experiences. Is Holmwood House haunted? Are Jane’s ordeals in the past somehow connected with Roz’s own problems in the present? And what really happened the night the Acclams’ house was set on fire?

Usually when I read a novel set in two time periods I find that I prefer one over the other – as I love historical fiction it tends to be the one set in the past. With this book, Roz’s story and Jane’s are so closely linked that it’s difficult to separate them; the transitions between past and present felt smooth and natural and I could easily become immersed in the lives of both women. Roz and Jane are both strong characters, but there are other interesting characters in each time period too. While some feel less developed than others, the two I found most memorable are (in the present) Helen, a jealous colleague who tries to cause trouble for Roz at work, and (in the past) Margaret Holmwood, Jane’s scheming mother-in-law.

I also liked the fact that the novel is set in York, a city I have visited many times and am quite familiar with. It was obvious that the book was written by an author who knows York, its streets and its buildings very well! Something else I found interesting was seeing what goes into opening a new tourist attraction to the public. I would have liked to have read more about Roz’s work – it sounded fascinating.

I realise I’ve come to the end of this review and haven’t mentioned the significance of the beautiful Tudor necklace on the front cover of the book, but I need to leave something for future readers to discover for themselves!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.

Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon

Jakobs Colours There are many, many novels which deal with the subject of the Jewish Holocaust, but in Jakob’s Colours Lindsay Hawdon explores another very important but largely forgotten piece of wartime history – the Gypsy Holocaust.

Beginning in Austria in 1944, she introduces us to an eight-year-old boy called Jakob. Part Roma and part Yenish, Jakob’s world has been torn apart by the horrors of war. He is running for his life across the Austrian countryside, and as he runs, he clings to his father’s words: “Don’t be afraid, Jakob. See the colours”.

But Jakob’s is not the only story to be told here. We also go back in time to the 1920s where we get to know Jakob’s mother, Lor, and learn of her troubled childhood in England. Later, in a Swiss hospital, Lor meets Yavy, the gypsy who becomes Jakob’s father, and we follow their relationship from its beginnings up to the point where Jakob finds himself alone and on the run.

Jakob’s Colours is very different from any other World War II novel I’ve read – a real accomplishment when you consider the sheer number of books set in this period. I previously knew nothing at all about the fate of the gypsies during the war (like most people, when I think of the Holocaust I tend to think of the Jews) so it’s great to have been given this opportunity to learn something new. However, I struggled with the structure of the novel. The story constantly moves back and forth in time, with each chapter titled either This Day, Before or Long Before, which I found quite confusing and difficult to follow. It felt disjointed and it meant that I never became as fully immersed in the lives of the characters as I would have liked.

I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to love Jakob’s Colours, especially as the historical background is so fascinating and the subject matter so poignant. It was definitely my problem with the jumping around in time that prevented me from loving it; I’m sure I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if only the story had been told in chronological order. I did still find a lot of things to admire, though – the writing is very poetic and quite beautiful in places, and I liked the colour imagery that runs throughout the novel.

Most of all, I liked the concept that however bad things become we need to continue to hope and to look for the good things in life…to see the colours.