Of Women and Goddesses

It is slightly sad that it has taken until the twenty-first century for anyone to wonder whether all the women mentioned in passing in the Greek and Roman epics had anything worth saying. Or whether their lives were worthy of a closer examination. But better late than never and the books are flooding onto the shelves now. Here is another.

What do you know about Ithaca? Known as the home island of Ulysses (or Odysseus), Ithaca Greece belongs to the Ionian island group. Apart from its mythical essence, it boasts an incredible natural beauty. Similarly to its neighboring islands, it is covered with lush green nature and it offers exotic beaches with emerald waters. Once again, it is only the man on Ithaca that gets a mention, Ulysses, not his patient and long-suffering wife, Penelope.

Claire North has set out to change that. The Trojan War has taken all men of fighting age and ability, and Penelope is left as Queen of Ithaca (this was long before Greece was a country per se, obviously it was a place, but every area and island had its own kingdom). The years pass; the war itself went on for over ten years, the heroes are drifting back, the ones that survived. Menelaus and Helen, Agamemnon with his slaves, mistresses and also, I think, Cassandra. But there is no sign of Odysseus. Penelope waits.

Ithaca is narrated by Hera, Queen of the Gods, though very few people know about her because Zeus has sucked all the oxygen of publicity out of Mount Olympus, and Hera is left wandering about in the foothills. The infamous suitors are lounging around eating and drinking, and fornicating with the servants, but Penelope is untouchable. She is weaving a shroud for Laertes, her father-in-law and until it is finished, she will not consider taking another husband. She knows, as does everyone else, once she has chosen, there will be bloodshed. So she waits, we wait and meanwhile Ithaca is prey to piratical (or perhaps not piratical) plunder.

This is a brilliantly imagined expansion of the fragment we know about Penelope, which in any case we only know as a result of Homer‘s epic poem The Odyssey. Which is the story of Odysseus wandering around the “wine dark sea” having adventures with Cyclops, Calypso and Scilla and Charybdis, not to mention Hades; harried by gods and goddesses along the way.

In Ithaca, there is a degree of rivalry between various goddesses, Athena is protecting Odysseus and by extension, Telemachus. Hera is protecting Penelope. Artemis pops up every now and then to mix things up and all of them are keeping under the radar of the gods – particularly Zeus and Poseidon. On the mortal side of events, it is the women who save the day…

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The sins of the fathers’

None at all, then three come along at once. In the space of a few years, three novels based around babies left at The Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields. All very different, but each one, centred around an infant left at the hospital. The Foundling by Stacey Halls tells the story from the perspective of the mother and another women, each holding a secret that involves the child. That Bonesetter Woman by Frances Quinn takes the story and gives the greater part to the aunt. A young woman is seduced by a much richer man, who rejects her. So the two sisters go to live with an aunt in London and the child is taken to The Foundling Hospital.

But Lily is a different story all together. An abandoned baby is found at the gates of Victoria Park by a young policemen, who in spite of the weather carries her to The Hospital, she is fostered out to a farm in Suffolk for six years, and returned, by law to The Hospital to be trained to a better life. In this novel, by Rose Tremain, the story is that of the child. A novel full of love and hope as well as bitter despair, brutality, cruelty and vengeance.

The circumstances of illegitimacy were pitiless. For a society lady there were exigencies that could be managed; for the middle classes avenues of secrecy could be made available, the pregnancy concealed and dealt with. For the indigent poor there was little anyone could do. Thomas Coram thought that there was something to be said for offering all these mothers a way out of their difficulty. Babies could be brought to the hospital, sometimes with a token so that should the situation be changed after six years, they could be reclaimed. The babies were then farmed out for a sum to foster-parents, but they had to return them after six years, at which point they were trained for work.

The Foundling Hospital still exists, but as a museum and it is a poignant place to visit. Many of the tokens are still there and can be viewed, tokens that represent the hope of a change of circumstance which clearly never came.

Rose Tremain has a perfected historical sensibility, it breathes life into her work, so that the textures and smells, even the taste of food, sour yellow apples or marmalade pudding, inject an authenticity into the narrative that is hard to shake off, even after you have put the book down.

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Teacher’s pet

There is always one. A child (pupil) that is in some way particularly attractive, or needy, or different. In this novel it is Roland, sent to an English boarding school (easily recognisable as one that the author attended) by his domineering military father.

Lessons is a bit of a disappointment. As a avid and loyal reader, one expects a bit more from Ian McEuan. This is a bit of a coathanger. A narrative that covers, almost to the day, the life of the author and therefore he can draw into the story some of the things, events and feelings that he had about the world events, while also telling a different more domestic story about writing, marriage and children.

Right at the beginning of the book, we can tell that Roland is in some difficulty. The situation also becomes obvious, but not exactly why he is in this predicament. So he sits with a baby resting on his chest pondering the present, remembering his own past and linking some of it to world events.

There are still passages of brilliant McEuanism, but fewer than one hoped for when opening this book. Compared to a typical Ian McEuan novel, it is long, but it is not all up to scratch. Neither quite a rant, nor quite a polemic it becomes a bit of both.

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I spy with my little eye

The world of espionage is full of twists and turns. None more so than the world of Tom Wilde, academic and undercover agent.

Rory Clements has created a world where even during peacetime, the threats are still vivid, deathly and exciting. Two lovers see something amazing on an East Anglian coast, but they keep quiet because to speak openly would reveal their own secret; a village is struck by sickness and it is only because Lydia visits her friend, only to be turned back by road blocks on every access route, that Tom Wilde becomes involved.

As usual, with this secret agent turned academic, the thrills and spills are many; the body count high and the red herrings come in barrels.

It is not, I suspect, insignificant, that The English Führer was written at a time when the world was experiencing its own “plague”, Covid-19. The isolation and the anxiety in this novel, when a man-made outbreak of bubonic plague is the key to a huge conspiracy, echoes the twitter feed of misinformation, conspiracy theories and blame-gaming that spread across the globe during the pandemic.

The background history is once again impeccable, it is woven into a fantastic, compelling narrative, with skill and determination. Still, in comparison with previous Tom Wilde adventures, this one did seem a bit of a stretch. Perhaps it is time to allow Tom Wilde to pursue his academic career, free from the machinations of MI5 and MI6, the OSS and the rest. A peacetime professor. at last.

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Send in the army

This is the third novel by Stacey Halls that picks up on a fragment of history (though the institute in question might baulk at fragment). The setting is the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The Norland Nurses training centre in Pembridge Square is a new idea, and an army of young women are trained in the care, supervision and entertainment of young children, not to educate but to refine.

When Ruby May takes up her second position with a family in West Yorkshire, she finds herself in a difficult and puzzling place. Used to London, the parks and streets, theatres and street lighting; Ruby is taken aback by the wilderness, the darkness and the valley that she finds herself in. Mr England is a mill owner, proudly making cotton, while his cousins have switched to yarn made from wool. The Greatrexes are sufficuently wealthy to build a whole town for their workers, with school, hospital and cottages for all their employees, and a palatial mansion for the family. England’s outfit is a great deal more modest.

Mrs England, the titular heroine, who first appears to be an invalid, is a Greatrex, but seems to be shunned or condescended to by her richer relatives. There are four children, two girls and two boys, the eldest Saul is an asthmatic, so living in the valley is hardly the best for his health, though it is some time before Ruby sees a really bad attack.

Mrs England is a narrative of middle class life, the nursery nurse fell between the upstairs-downstairs narrative of so many novels, she did not belong with the family, nor with the servants. Ruby May has replaced a very much older nanny, a family retainer going back several decades. At first, Ruby is resented by the staff and assiduously courted by Mr England, who does his level best to command her loyalty and attention.

This is both an exploration of that strange relationship that came with the nursery nurse’s territory and the tensions and secrets of a family, held in the grip of a coercive and controlling father. It was easier then, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for a husband to control his wife, she came as part and parcel of his chattels, even his children belonged to him, and unquestioning obedience was expected of both wife and servants. That something might be wrong with this set up slowly dawned on Ruby, but she had her own secrets and was slow to react.

A very atmospheric and intriguing novel.

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Even more Australian noir

Another absolutely stonking thriller from Jane Harper. Her Australian novels all have one person in common, Aaron Falk. By the time we begin Exiles, he is with the Australian Federal Police, the AFP, in the financial branch. Not to be confused with the AFL which also gets a mention and refers to football.

Aaron has taken time off to attend the christening of his godson Henry Raco, a ceremony and celebration that has been deferred for a year. Two events, possibly linked in some way, are causing disquiet to members of the Raco family and their immediate friends and neighbours, and inevitably with his police background, Aaron is involved in the investigation . So what exactly happened to Kim?

With her usual flair for scene setting and locality, Harper has placed this in the wineries of Southern Australia. The fictional Marralee Valley is celebrating an annual Food and Wine Festival, everyone is busy. But time can also be had for love and happiness, can’t it?

The plot is simple once you see it, but only when you stop seeing what you expect to see and start connecting the dots, and dots are Aaron’s speciality.

A brilliant, unstoppable thriller. Hard not to blink.

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Bring up the bodies

The First World War is over. The land all the way from Belgium to Northern France is littered with bodies, fallen heroes of Imperial Britain, France and obviously Germany. So teams of veterans, with Chinese labour, are slowly going over the ground, digging up, identifying where possible and re-burying soldiers, following the meticulous but often obsolete notes made at the time of hurried burials done in the aftermath of a given engagement.

What would become firstly, the Imperial War Graves Commission, and subsequently the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in 1919 was an embryonic organisation still run by the army. Captain Mackenzie is in charge of one burial party searching an area near Amiens, his unwelcome visitor, Amy Vanneck, is there searching for just one thing – her fiancé, Edward Haslam.

Philip Gray has done his homework. His research sits lightly upon the narrative in Two Storm Wood, and sheds a light upon a period not usually examined in fiction. First of all, the less than common knowledge that Chinese labourers were widely used throughout the First World War for trench digging and tunnelling, culled by arrangement from Chinese prisons largely, these were not volunteers. After the War, some of them “volunteered” to remain doing this grisly but necessary work. The British veterans were there entirely voluntarily, many out a sense of duty towards their brothers-in-arms.

The place called Two Storm Wood is fictional, it lies among a series of trenches held at different times by the Germans and the British in that awful conflict that swung a few metres one way and then a few metres back across a muddy, blasted landscape. There are still dangers – the departing Germans (during the war) and sometimes the British also, often left booby traps for their conquerors. The booby trapped souvenir helmet was a typical example, and in Two Storm Wood it is a couple of bodies – move the bodies and an explosion will ensue with deadly results.

Live ordinances were another hazard, so the work was dangerous as well as necessary. And it still is.

Two Storm Wood sets up a brilliant and convoluted plot, a war time horror and a peacetime chase, but who is telling the truth? What will Captain Mackenzie find at Two Storm Wood? Who sent Captain Westbrook to investigate the Chinese labourers, if that is indeed what he is there for? And what will Amy do next?

As it says on the cover: 1919. The guns are silent. The dead are not. Great plot, intriguing and gripping story, edge of the seat tension. What more could one ask?

Other suggestions:

Robert Edric Field Service

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Time honour’d Lancaster

This narrative history of John of Gaunt, one of the few names that pretty much everyone knows, puts the life of this medieval prince into a recognisable context.

The Red Prince deals chronologically with the life of Gaunt from his birth in Ghent to his death in Leicester Castle. John of Gaunt, brother of the equally famous, Black Prince, is the stuff of legends. Descended from kings, his blood runs right through the royal family of England, Plantagenet and Tudor alike use his genealogy to establish their right ot the throne of England.

A man of immense wealth and power, in his lifetime John of Gaunt travelled widely, on diplomatic and war council meetings, and indeed campaigns through Scotland, France and Spain. His holdings in England alone, on the death of both his father-in-law and his sister-in-law, made him the largest landowner in England.

Immortalised by William Shakespeare, and lauded by his brother-in-law, by his third marriage, Geoffrey Chaucer, John of Gaunt strides through the pages of history and fiction like a colossus.

His first marriage to Blanche, gave him wealth and titles; his second marriage to Constance entitled him to the throne of Castile and Leon, but it is his affair and then third marriage to Katherine Swynford that has left the best legacy for novellists.

Helen Carr has steered the reader through the complexities of the time in a life whose trajectory changed the face of England.

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Legal eagles

I don’t know why this is the first Michael Connelly novel I have read, but it may not be the last. I have certainly seen films made from his books, though I was unaware of it at the time.

The Lincoln Lawyer, I think, is the first in a series that introduces the readers to Mickey Haller a defense lawyer, unique in that his office is in the back of a car, his secretary is an ex-wife, one of two and the prosecutor in a case, such as the Roulet case turns out to be his other ex-wife – who has to be excused and replaced by a rookie lawyer.

Courtroom dramas of the American variety are always a bit baffling, as the procedures seems on the face of it, to be so different from the European systems. But that doesn’t matter because the twists and turns in this novel, inside and outside the court are truly gut-wrenching. There is nothing worse that convicting the innocent; but a defense lawyer is on hand, if possible, to allow the guilty and the innocent to go free: that is after all, what he is paid to do. In the Roulet case, his bank balance looks better than his conscience. The only snag lies in what the defendant says, and many of them say too much to too many people. Mickey Haller’s job is to shut them up.

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Who needs enemies?

The premise of this novel is a familiar one. Two friends from school grow up, life happens and in the end their true natures are exposed to the air. Are they still friends?

Kamila Shamsie was born in Pakistan and now lives in England. Maryam and Zahra are fourteen, they have been friends from the very beginning, though their backgrounds are very different. Then on a teenage night out, something happened that throws their lives into disarray. Years later, they are both adults living in England and meeting for walks and lunch, friendship restored. Two people from their mutual past turn up and suddenly their true natures are horribly exposed – can their friendship survive?

Shamsie is brilliant with context and atmosphere, seasonal changes are important to the context and political changes are registered as background noise, but with impact on the young girls. At a critical moment Zahra’s father is threatened, very politely, and ordered to say something complimentary about the President on his TV cricket commentary show; he fails to comply and they wait for their world to blow up – instead it is Zia’s plane that blows up. Benazir Bhutto is elected and all Pakistani girls realise that there is a future out there for them which might not simply be marriage and children, and servitude.

Best of Friends in the narrative of two such women. In England, the two women are successful, Maryam in a tech world of venture capital and Zahra as a campaigning lawyer head of an organisation that fights for civil liberties. They are equals in their fields, but occasionally in the Venn diagram of life their two circles overlap and collide unhappily. They happen to be together when Benazir Bhutto is assassinated.

We travel through seasons and periods in this book, starting in Karachi in 1988, passing through summer to winter, then to London 2019 spring, summer and winter and finally to London 2020 – social distancing and two women walking in Primrose Hill.

Other Reading:

Mohammed Hanif A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Kamila Shamsie Home Fire

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