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Posts Tagged ‘An Officer and a Spy’

marycelesteWhat are the odds? The evening news tells of an abandoned ship sailing the Atlantic filled with cannibal rats. On a recent episode of PBS’s Sherlock, a reference is made to the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Then the novel I’m reading, Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, digital galley), includes an abandoned ship, a chapter titled “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” and Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Synchronicity. Serendipity. Martin makes elegant use of both as she stitches fact and fiction about shipwrecks, spiritualism, and Doyle flexing his storytelling skills. He is one of many fascinated by the actual mystery of the Mary Celeste, an American brig found floating at sea in 1872 with her cargo intact, her crew nowhere to be found. He even writes a bizarre tale about such a ship where a passenger goes berserk and murders all aboard, presenting it as an authentic account. Traveling in America in the 1894, he savors his new fame, not realizing that Philadelphia medium Violet Petra has a link to the tragedy. He thinks Violet is truly clairvoyant, but journalist Phoebe Grant is certain she’s a fake. Writing from multiple perspectives, Martin offers a story as rich and strange as one of Doyle’s. Full fathom five . . .

harrisRobert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy (Knopf, digital galley) recounts the infamous Dreyfus Affair from the viewpoint of an actual French army officer, George Picquart, who like many of his compatriots believes Capt. Alfred Dreyfus is a traitor. But shortly after Dreyfus is stripped of his rank in 1895 and shipped off to Devil’s Island, Picquart is promoted to head the military’s counterespionage unit and finds evidence that another spy has been passing secrets to the Germans. He also realizes that Dreyfus is the victim of a anti-Semitic conspiracy by military higher-ups, who aren’t pleased by Picquart’s investigation and derail his career. Harris unravels the complexities of the case with a novelist’s flair and a historian’s eye for detail, but I didn’t find it as thrilling as his novels The Ghost, Enigma or Archangel, where he allowed his imagination free rein.

inventionSomething similar occurs in Sue Monk Kidd’s involving The Invention of Wings (Viking, digital galley), which was inspired by the life of Sarah Grimke, a real-life abolitionist and feminist from Charleston, S.C. It’s a matter of record, Kidd writes in an afterward, that Sarah was presented with a house slave, 10-year-old Hetty, on her 11th birthday. The real Hetty died young, but Kidd re-imagines her as spirited and resourceful “Handful,” who is more pragmatic about her fate than precocious Sarah, who tries to emancipate her. When that fails, she teaches Hetty to read, and both girls are severely punished. Their friendship is tested by time and distance — Sarah finding refuge in Quaker Philadelphia, Hetty still a slave in the Grimke household — but both persevere in their ambitions and ideals. The dual narratives work well for the most part, but Hetty’s story is more harrowing and heartbreaking. Although Sarah’s accomplishments are many and laudable, she just isn’t as compelling a character when contrasted with the imagined Hetty. Both are strong women, but Hetty is more memorable, more real.

mrsblakeApril Smith is quick to write that while the circumstances of her new novel are factual, the majority of the characters are fictional. Still, A Star for Mrs. Blake (Knopf, digital galley),  has the veracity of real lives and true emotion. In 1931, Cora Blake is a librarian in a Maine fishing village whose only son died in World War I. As a “Gold Star Mother,” she joins a group of other women on a government-sponsored trip to France to visit the graves of the fallen and bid a final goodbye. The group line-up is familiar from central casting — the Boston society matron, the Jewish farmer’s wife under her husband’s thumb, the Irish maid. A Southern black seamstress has the same surname as a woman recently released from a mental hospital, but the group’s escorts, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond  and nurse Lily Barnett, quickly resolve the mix-up. The voyage over and the visit to the Meuse-Argonne is crowded with incident: flirtations, affairs, a scandal, a secret or two. Cora remains the star of the story; of particular interest is her friendship with a badly scarred war reporter who wears a tin mask and her relationship with the good man who waits for her at home. Throughout, Smith’s lovely writing elevates the story above  sentimental predictability.

underskyAs someone who learned to read from A Child’s Garden of Verses and has long been fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and works, I had great expectations of Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Random House, digital galley). The Scottish writer and his plucky, older American wife Fanny Osbourne had a-larger-than-life romance and marriage marked by RSL’s health troubles, frequent travel to exotic locales and career conflicts. And it’s still a good story, although Horan’s workaday prose threatens to rob Louis and Fanny of all vitality, turning them into characters who profess passion — for art and literature, for one another, for a wide and starry life — but who never leap off the page. Maybe someone should make a movie. . .

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