The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

the-unseeingIt’s Christmas 1836 and Hannah Brown is looking forward to her wedding to James Greenacre. However, the marriage will never take place; instead, Hannah is brutally murdered and in the weeks that follow, the parts of her dismembered body are discovered in various locations around London. Her fiancé, Greenacre, is arrested and found guilty – but although he admits to disposing of the body, he claims that Hannah was already dead when he found her. This makes no difference to the judge and jury and Greenacre is sentenced to hang, along with his mistress, Sarah Gale, who is accused of concealing the murder.

Sarah had been living with Greenacre as his housekeeper before being asked to leave so he could marry Hannah. She insists that she knew nothing about the murder and Greenacre also denies that she had any involvement, but this is not enough to save her. As she sits in a cell in Newgate Prison, Sarah’s only hope is the petition she has submitted asking for clemency. The lawyer appointed by the Home Secretary to look again at Sarah’s case is Edmund Fleetwood, young, idealistic and principled. After speaking to Sarah and hearing her talk about her life, Edmund is convinced that she should be freed, but how can he prove it? And is it possible that he is becoming too emotionally involved in the case to be able to see the facts clearly?

Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on a true crime; the Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, really did take place and James Greenacre really was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Sarah Gale was also arrested, but I won’t tell you what her eventual fate would be. I didn’t know and that meant I was kept in suspense wondering what would happen to her. It’s important to remember, though, that this is fiction and not everything in the book is taken from historical fact – which could explain why some of the developments towards the end of the novel didn’t completely convince me.

Edmund Fleetwood, who plays such a major role in the novel, is a fictional character and the author has created a fictional story for him running alongside Sarah’s. I thought the two stories worked well together – I did like Edmund and I shared his frustration as Sarah repeatedly refused to provide any information which could have helped her defence – but there were times when I felt I was being distracted from the central plot and I just wanted to get back to Sarah in the Newgate. The portrayal of prison life is one of the novel’s strong points and reminded me of other prison-based historical novels such as Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, is the exploration of what it meant to be a woman accused of a crime in the 19th century: the unfairness of the law, the way in which evidence against a woman was considered, the possible bias that could arise from a verdict being reached by an all-male jury, and whether the punishments handed out were in proportion to the crime. The fact that many of these women had children – like Sarah’s little boy, George – added another complication. Sarah is lucky enough to have a sister, Rosina, who takes care of George while she is in prison, but what will happen to him if the worst happens and she can never come home?

The Unseeing is an interesting blend of fact and fiction; I did enjoy it, but I felt that there wasn’t enough to make this book stand out from others of its type. I couldn’t quite love it, but I liked it and will be looking out for more from Anna Mazzola.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-project This novel by Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet attracted a lot of attention after being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.  Of all the books on the list, I remember thinking that this sounded like the one I would be most likely to enjoy, so I had a lovely surprise when I received a nice hardback copy from my sister for Christmas.

His Bloody Project is fiction but presented so convincingly as non-fiction that there were times when I wondered if I’d misunderstood and I was actually reading a true story after all!  Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, the case in question is that of a triple murder committed in August 1869 in Culduie, a remote village in the Scottish Highlands.  In his preface, the author explains that he came across the documents contained in this book while researching his own family history at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. 

Following a collection of statements given by the residents of Culduie, we proceed to the longest section of the book: Roderick Macrae’s memoir which he was instructed to write by his advocate, Andrew Sinclair, during his imprisonment at Inverness Castle awaiting his trial.  Roderick, only seventeen at the time of his arrest, never tries to deny that he killed his neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, and two other members of the Mackenzie family – we know this right from the beginning of the book – but what we don’t know is what caused him to do such a thing.  Roderick’s memoir provides some insights, giving some background information on what life was like in Culduie and describing the events leading up to the murders.

Next, we have the opportunity to read the medical reports on each of the three murder victims – and this is the first real indication we get that maybe Roderick has not been entirely honest with us.  A study by a doctor who visited Roderick in prison follows, raising and answering questions about the prisoner’s state of mind, and finally we arrive at the trial itself.  As judge, jury and spectators try to understand the motive behind the crime, witnesses are called who give statements both to confirm Roderick’s own account and to contradict it.  A verdict is finally reached, but whether it is the right one or not is up to each individual reader to decide. 

While I was reading Roderick’s own story, I had a lot of sympathy for him and I was so angry with Lachlan Mackenzie (or Lachlan Broad, as he is usually known) that I could understand why Roderick felt driven to take revenge.  However, when I read the rest of the documents, particularly the report of the court proceedings, I began to wonder how much Roderick had omitted from his memoir and whether Lachlan Broad’s actions were really as provocative as they had at first seemed.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the portrayal of life in a tiny Scottish community in the middle of the 19th century.  Roderick Macrae’s mother dies in childbirth just before the events described in the novel, leaving Roderick and his siblings alone with their father, a crofter trying to earn his living from the land.  Culduie (a settlement of only nine houses) and the surrounding villages are the property of the Laird, who rules through his factor and a network of local constables.  Lachlan Broad is elected the constable for Culduie and this is what brings him into conflict with the Macraes.

The writing style and the language used throughout the novel feels appropriate for the time period and increases the sense of authenticity; as I’ve said, at times I could almost have believed I was reading genuine historical documents.  Dialect is used sparingly and a glossary is provided if you need to look up any unfamiliar Scots words (there were a few that were new to me, but these were mainly the names of farming implements such as croman and cas chrom).  Maybe Roderick’s narrative voice isn’t entirely convincing given his age, but we are told that he is an exceptionally bright, intelligent boy – and the author does address this issue in the preface too.

I loved His Bloody Project; although it’s not a traditional crime novel and there’s never any mystery surrounding the identity of the murderer, it’s the sort of book that leaves you with more questions at the end than you had at the beginning.  I think a re-read might be necessary at some point!    

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

days-without-end Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; having enjoyed his last three novels, The Temporary Gentleman, On Canaan’s Side and The Secret Scripture, I began to read his latest one, Days Without End, not really knowing or caring what it was about. I knew I could count on Barry to have produced another beautifully written novel and I was sure that would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – I still found things to like and to admire, but this just wasn’t my sort of book.

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world” who meet in Missouri as teenagers while sheltering from the rain together under a hedge. It’s the 1850s and Thomas, having lost his family to the famine in Ireland, has fled to America in search of a better life. John, who was born in New England, is the first friend Thomas has made in his new country and the two quickly become inseparable. The first thing they need to do is find employment and here their youthful good looks prove useful when a saloon owner offers them a job as dancers, on the condition that they dress up in women’s clothes to entertain the local miners.

At seventeen, considering themselves too old to continue their dancing act, Thomas and John leave the saloon and join the US Army. Fighting first in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War (on the Union side), it’s a difficult life and the two young soldiers face dangers and obstacles ranging from hunger and illness to extreme weather and encounters with Native Americans. Throughout all of this there are two things that sustain them: their love for each other and their relationship with Winona, a young Sioux girl separated from her family during a raid.

Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty and this provides a link with several of Barry’s previous novels which tell the stories of other members of the McNulty family (he has also written several which focus on another Irish family, the Dunnes). Thomas, though, is obviously from an earlier generation of McNultys; the other novels are set in the 20th century, which makes this one feel a bit different. Another difference is that this book is set in the American West rather than Ireland – and I think this is probably why I had a problem. Westerns are not a genre I would usually choose to read (although I did love Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers) and too much of this novel just didn’t interest me at all.

If the setting does sound of interest to you, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this book even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it myself. Sebastian Barry is a very talented writer and there are some beautiful passages in this novel; the poetic narrative voice didn’t always sound very convincing coming from the down-to-earth soldier, Thomas McNulty, but that didn’t really matter – the beautiful, poetic writing was the reason I chose to read this book, after all.

What I did struggle with was reading page after page of descriptions of army life, buffalo shooting expeditions and battles against the Sioux. I don’t think the balance between these aspects of the story and the more personal aspects was quite right and I very nearly gave up on the book halfway through. I kept reading mainly because I wanted to know what would happen to Winona – and I was rewarded with an interesting and dramatic ending to her storyline.

Days Without End has its good points and its bad points, then, and I think my disappointment with it is entirely due to my personal reading tastes. I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sebastian Barry I would love this one too, despite a setting and subject which didn’t appeal to me. I’m still looking forward to going back and exploring his earlier novels; I have a copy of Annie Dunne, which sounds much more like the kind of book I would enjoy, so that’s probably the one I’ll be reading next.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter

the-strangler-vine I love a good historical mystery and when this one was recommended to me recently (thank you, Pam!) I remembered that I already had a copy on my Kindle and couldn’t leave it to languish there any longer. Having read it, I wish I’d found time for it earlier – it’s an excellent book – but on the positive side, there are now two more in the series which I can read sooner rather than later.

The Strangler Vine is set in India in 1837, when large areas of the country were ruled by the British East India Company. Our narrator is William Avery, a young officer with the Company’s army. Originally from Devon, he has grown up reading the work of Xavier Mountstuart, a fictional author and poet whose writings sound similar to Rudyard Kipling’s and which have given him a romanticised view of India. Having spent nine months in Calcutta, however, he is starting to feel disillusioned with “the monstrous climate, the casual barbarities of the native population and the stiff unfriendliness of the European society”.

Disappointed that he still hasn’t been summoned to join his cavalry regiment in North Bengal, Avery is growing frustrated and bored – until the day he is asked to accompany an older officer, Jeremiah Blake, on a special mission. It seems that his literary hero, Mountstuart, has gone missing while carrying out research for a new poem and Avery and Blake have been given the task of finding him.

The Strangler Vine is a wonderful, fascinating novel; there are so many things I enjoyed about it that I’m not sure where to start! First of all, there’s the relationship between the two main characters, Avery and Blake, who, like all good mystery-solving duos, are two very different people who complement each other perfectly. Young, naïve and loyal to the Company, Avery is more instantly likeable and although he can be slow to pick up on clues, the fact that he never seems to know any more than the reader does makes him the perfect character to guide us through the novel. There’s a sense that where Indian culture, politics and history are concerned, Avery is learning as he goes along, which means background information tends to be given in large chunks rather than being lightly woven into the story. This style won’t appeal to every reader, but I found it all so interesting that it didn’t bother me.

Jeremiah Blake is a more unusual and intriguing character; although he still has connections to the East India Company, he no longer actively works for them – his knowledge of Indian languages and marriage to an Indian woman have aroused the distrust of the other officers who consider him to have ‘gone native’. His attitude towards Avery is abrupt, rude and dismissive and because we only see him through Avery’s eyes, he is a complete enigma at first. Eventually his true character starts to be revealed, but I was still left with the feeling that we have more to discover about Blake.

The mystery element of the novel is quite complex and what seems to Avery at first to be a straightforward search for a missing man soon develops into something with much deeper implications. It all revolves around the cult of Thuggee – organised gangs of thieves and murderers who worship the Goddess Kali and who are causing widespread fear and panic amongst the British in India. Mountstuart is thought to have been researching the Thugs at the time of his disappearance and so Avery and Blake, following his trail, also become drawn into the mystery and controversy surrounding the cult.

I loved The Strangler Vine; apart from the aspects of the novel I’ve already mentioned, I also really liked MJ Carter’s writing; it’s intelligent and detailed, she brings the setting vividly to life and, while I can hardly claim to be an expert on the India of the 1830s, if there were any inaccuracies or anachronisms I didn’t notice them. I can’t wait to join Avery and Blake for another adventure in The Printer’s Coffin.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer

the-shoguns-queen Japan, as I discussed in my recent Historical Musings post, is a country whose history I know very little about. Lesley Downer has written several books about Japan, including a quartet of novels set in the 19th century; I remember reading about one of the others on The Idle Woman’s blog a few months ago, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Downer’s latest book, The Shogun’s Queen. This is the final book in the quartet to be published, but it’s the first chronologically so even though I haven’t read the other three I didn’t expect to be at any disadvantage.

After a brief prologue, the novel opens in 1853 with Japan on the cusp of change. Until now, the country has been largely insulated from the outside world and apart from some limited contact with Dutch traders, Japanese ports have been closed to the west. The sight of barbarian ships approaching, then, causes panic, fear and confusion. What do the barbarians (westerners) want and what will they do if Japan refuses to agree to their demands?

It’s during this turbulent period that our heroine, Okatsu, is adopted by the ambitious Lord Nariakira of Satsuma and taken into his household, where she is renamed Atsu. Adoption, in Japan at this time, is a way of raising a woman’s rank and improving her marriage prospects, so a few years later Nariakira arranges for Atsu to be adopted again, this time by his brother-in-law Prince Konoe. His ultimate aim is to marry Atsu to Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun, and in 1856 this aim is achieved. Nariakira hopes Atsu can use her position as Iesada’s wife to influence the Shogun’s choice of a successor – but as Atsu gets to know her new husband she discovers how difficult that task will be.

The approach of western ships means Japan is facing a new set of threats, dangers and opportunities, so strong leadership is desperately needed. I’m not going to say too much about the character of Iesada, but as soon as he appears on the page it is obvious that he can’t possibly be that strong leader. Poor Atsu; although she does begin to feel affection and even love, of a sort, for the Shogun, it is not a normal or happy marriage and it would be difficult not to have sympathy for her. Iesada’s mother is a cruel, manipulative woman who resents having to relinquish any of her control over her son, and this makes it almost impossible for Atsu to carry out the instructions she has been given by Nariakira.

As if Atsu’s situation wasn’t already bad enough, she has been forced to separate from the man she truly loves, Kaneshige, and doesn’t expect to see him again, knowing that once she enters Edo Castle as the Shogun’s wife she will never be allowed to leave. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about this period of Japanese history before I started reading, and I was fascinated by the descriptions of Atsu’s life, both before her marriage, when she lived in the Satsuma domain, and later, in the confines of the Women’s Palace in Edo (the former name for Tokyo). It was also fascinating to read about the ‘barbarians’ – Americans and Europeans – and how they and their culture appeared when seen through Japanese eyes.

I would have no hesitation in recommending The Shogun’s Queen to readers who, like myself, are looking for an accessible introduction to the history of 19th century Japan. A lack of familiarity with the period is not a problem as Lesley Downer makes everything easy to follow and understand; the book also includes a map, a list of characters and a detailed afterword in which the author provides more information on the historical background and gives us an idea of which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are largely fictional (such as the relationship between Atsu and Kaneshige). First and foremost, though, this is a gripping and entertaining story with characters to love and characters to hate. I enjoyed it and will be exploring Lesley Downer’s other books, as well as continuing to look out for more novels set in Japan.

I received a copy of The Shogun’s Queen from the publisher for review.

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

orphans-of-the-carnival It’s been more than five years since I read Carol Birch’s excellent Jamrach’s Menagerie, an adventure novel set in the Victorian period; I had intended to go back and explore her earlier books, but that never happened, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her new one, Orphans of the Carnival. It’s a very different book from Jamrach, but just as fascinating in its own way.

Orphans of the Carnival is the story of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican woman born in 1834 with a rare genetic condition, hypertrichosis terminalis, which has resulted in her face and body being covered in thick black hair. In addition to this, Julia also has a jutting jaw and thick gums and lips, caused by another condition called gingival hyperplasia. Julia is an intelligent, talented woman – as well as speaking three languages, she sings and dances well enough to build a career for herself in the circuses and theatres of 19th century America and Europe. However, she knows that the crowds who come to watch are not really interested in her musical ability; they just want to marvel at her unusual looks.

Interspersed with Julia’s story is the story of another woman, this time one who lives in London in the 1980s. Her name is Rose and she’s a hoarder – she hoards useless items she finds in the street, things that other people have thrown away. Near the beginning of the novel, she brings home an old, discarded doll which she names Tattoo; the doll provides a link between Julia and Rose, but we won’t find out exactly what the connection is until we reach the end of the book.

This is an unusual and moving novel based on the life of a real person. Yes, Julia Pastrana really existed and you can easily find pictures and information about her online. Although I didn’t know anything about Julia before I read this book, it seems that Carol Birch has followed the known historical facts as far as possible while using her imagination to fill in the gaps. The novel is written in the third person but mainly from Julia’s perspective and by the end I felt that I knew her well.

julia-pastrana Julia is a gentle and sensitive woman, and also quite an innocent and vulnerable one, largely because she has spent so much time sheltered from the outside world, living with friends and colleagues from the circus and carnival circuit and hiding her face behind a veil when she does venture out in public. I had a lot of sympathy for Julia; I’m sure there would be medical treatment and support available for someone born with her conditions today, but in the 1800s there was nothing that could be done. I felt bad for her when she reads a review of one of her performances describing her not just as ugly (which she was prepared to accept) but also as ‘an insult to decency’ – and again when her show is closed down on advice from a doctor who claims that the sight of her face could be harmful to pregnant women.

Eventually, Julia meets Theodore Lent, the man who is to become both her manager and her husband. I found it hard to tell what Theo really thought about Julia. He does seem to have some affection for her, but he also appears to be much more interested in the money to be made than he is in Julia as a person. It’s so sad when Julia, who just wants a husband who loves her, says to Theo: “It’s not love though, is it? Not like it is with other people. Real humans.”

Julia’s story is interesting and compelling, but I don’t think the 1980s sections add very much – in fact, they are just a distraction. The characters aren’t developed in anywhere near as much depth as the historical ones and although I did appreciate the eventual shocking revelation which links the two storylines together, I didn’t feel that it was really necessary.

This isn’t a perfect book, then, and it’s also not one that I can say I ‘enjoyed’ as I found it quite uncomfortable to read (not because of what Julia looks like, but because of the way other people treat her and respond to her). It’s certainly worth reading, though, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn a little bit about the life of Julia Pastrana.

Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

Mrs Engels This is another book read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and another one that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t think I had even heard of it until it appeared on the shortlist for this year’s prize and I’m pleased that it did because otherwise I would probably never have read it and would never have had the opportunity to get to know Lizzie Burns – the Mrs Engels of the title.

The novel is narrated by Lizzie herself, a working-class Irish woman who becomes the lover and common-law wife of the German philosopher Friedrich Engels. In 1870, when we first meet Lizzie, she and Engels are boarding a train which will take them from Manchester to London, where they will be moving into a house in Primrose Hill close to Friedrich’s friend, Karl Marx. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time, so that as well as watching the couple settle into their new home, we also learn something of Lizzie’s early life in Manchester, where she and her sister, Mary, grew up in poverty before starting work at Ermen & Engels cotton mill – something which will bring them into contact with the man who is to become such an important part of both of their lives.

I came to this book knowing almost nothing about Friedrich Engels and his work (other than that he co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx) and I wondered whether that would be a problem. I needn’t have worried, though, because the focus of this novel is very much on the details of his personal life and his relationships with the Burns sisters, first Mary, his partner of many years, and then – after her death – Lizzie. It seems that little is known about the real Lizzie and Mary, so I kept in mind while reading that not everything that happens in the novel is historically accurate and that a lot of it is the product of the author’s imagination.

One thing we do know about Lizzie Burns is that Marx’s daughter Eleanor said she was “illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet”. I think Gavin McCrea does a great job in Mrs Engels of displaying these different facets of Lizzie’s character. On the surface she’s strong, outspoken and tough – she has to be, to cope with everything life throws at her – but underneath there’s an intelligence, a sensitivity and a sharp wit. Through his choice of words and spellings, McCrea also manages to convey the fact that she is illiterate and poorly educated. The result is a narrative voice which is unusual, memorable and perfectly suited to Lizzie’s character.

Mrs Engels is not a perfect novel – the transitions between time periods are not always clear and the characters, with the exception of Lizzie, feel thinly drawn and difficult to like. However, I found it interesting to read the descriptions of the living and working conditions experienced by mill workers in Victorian Manchester and the challenges faced by a working-class woman who suddenly finds herself moving up the social ladder and trying to manage a London household. It’s a fascinating read – and I loved the fact that a woman who was unable to tell her own story has finally been given a voice.