The Kitchen House 1

It bothered me I hadn’t heard of this powerful novel set in my state, Virginia.  I wondered if its timing was overshadowed by THE HELP, but that blockbuster came out a year earlier.  Very different stories of racial injustices in the South, but you’d think THE KITCHEN HOUSE would have garnered attention once readers showed how much they cared about civil rights.  So, I did a little Googling and learned it took 2 ½ years for this historical novel to get traction, through word-of-mouth spread.

Indentured Servitude, Slavery, and the Price of Freedom (Virginia tobacco plantation, 1791 to 1810): If only THE KITCHEN HOUSE were pure fiction.  If only the racial horrors, abuses, and inequalities were the product of the author’s vivid imagination, rather than stirred by stark antebellum South truths.  It’s a testament to Kathleen Grissom’s storytelling and authentic dialogue – told through two distinct female voices – that what happens on her imaginary plantation, Tall Oaks, feels so real it might have taken place at one of the best preserved plantations in Virginia: Prestwould.  Built by slaves during the same historical time period as the novel, the author did some of her research here.  Grissom, who renovated a Virginia plantation property, clearly felt history come alive, as you will too.

From the Prologue, you’re prepared for an “unspeakable” tragedy.  And while you should prepare for plenty more heart wrenching calamities, there’s also courage, dignity, and love that buoys you.

First, though, you’ll want to wrap yourself around a who’s who of characters for this story is peopled by a large cast.  Backgrounds, race, class, and family loyalties matter greatly, impacted by whether they’re members of the “kitchen house” or the “big house” or toil in the tobacco fields, thus live in slave quarters.  Here’s a rundown of key people at Tall Oaks:

LAVINIA McCARTEN:  The white, female, more educated voice.  An indentured servant who will eventually be granted freedom when she comes of age.  At 7, she arrives ill and disoriented, having lost her Irish family.  It’s historically fitting that she comes to Virginia, the first state to institute the harsh labor practice of indenture.  Brought over by ship by the plantation owner, Lavinia looks as you might expect: pale, thin, freckled, red hair, and as gentle and amiable as can be.  Her room, board, and labor is at the “kitchen house” where she quickly becomes attached to the wise matron, Mama Mae, a slave whose status is elevated working here but she’s still property with no hope for freedom.  By 12, Lavinia is beginning to understand the “line drawn between black and white.”  Her “lonely heart,” her “singing heart,” tell her not to “want to be the white girl.”

BELLE:  The bi-racial, second narrator, whose uneducated voice is in a dialect that flows and moves us.  She’s so light skinned she could pass for white.  That’s because her father is the plantation master; her mother, an unknown slave.  Since she’s the captain’s daughter, she’s at the main house, but the captain’s wife does not know her genetics, believes she’s her husband’s mistress.  Belle’s mixed heritage complicates other lives too.  She loves Mama Mae’s son, Ben, which, of course, is unacceptable.  They hide their love, fear their lives.  At 18, she doesn’t want her promised freedom, for she can’t bear to lose Ben.  She’s one of the characters whose “gotten hurt enough in this life.”

CAPTAIN JAMES PYKE:  Married at 40, at sea for months on end, driving his jealous, extremely lonely wife to depression and madness, for she sees that Belle is “one of the captain’s most prized possessions.” He may be kindly but he feels unknowable, owing to his constant, lengthy absences.

MISS MARTHA:  When she married at 20 her “vibrant nature” was considered well-suited to her “adventuresome” husband, but sadly she’s anything but.  As the weakest, languishing character, we empathize with her feelings of abandonment and great losses.  Her survival depends on opium.  She adores her young daughter, Sally; not the case with her son, Marshall, for reasons that become painfully clear.  Belle may be responsible for her care, but it’s Lavinia she bonds with.

MAMA MAE AND HER FAMILY:  We understand why Lavinia loves Mama Mae.  You will too.  She’s brave, spiritual, devoted to her family, endearing.  She may “act like I don’t have no mind of my own, except how to make everybody in the house happy.  That because I mean to stay up here.”  Papa George, her husband, has a heart of gold too.  They have twin girls: Fanny, the “plain one,” and Beattie “destined to be a beauty.”  They instantly became Lavinia’s playmates, as they’re all close in age.   Ben, their 18-year-old son, knows his place as a slave despite his enduring affection for Belle, so he also gets involved with a slave, Lucy.  For too many sorrowful reasons, his “big old eyes fill up and run over until it looks like there’s a bucket of water coming down his face.”  Dora is their oldest daughter, tending to a sick baby Henry; the father, Jimmy, a slave working in the fields.  Yes, all these relationships are steeped in complications.

WILL STEVENS:  A breath of fresh air for his kindnesses, his human decency.  Will enters the picture when the Captain realizes he needs someone capable to run his estate while he’s away.  As a young girl, Lavinia is infatuated with Will; theirs a charming, teasing relationship.  When she matures, he sees she’s a “beautiful young woman who has the heart of a child.”

RANKIN:  One of the abusive, hateful characters.  Rankin oversees the tobacco farm, an alcoholic, and a dangerous influence on Miss Martha’s son, Marshall.

UNCLE JACOB:  A calming, spiritual presence.  He’s the least known except for references to his African tribe, Foulah, and Islamic religion.  Presumably, these differences account for why he lives alone in a cabin on (or near?) the plantation.

MR. WATERS:  Marshall’s tutor, out for no good.  Perhaps the root of Marshall’s abusiveness?

While there are more characters in this sprawling novel as the years pass, telling about them would spoil the reading.

While often “everybody’s full of nerves,” not all is always bleak.  Home cooking runs deliciously throughout, reminding us of the goodness of families, summer southern days, and regional recipes of biscuits, corn bread, peach preserves, pickled cucumbers, and strawberry jam pound cake.  Periodic references to the estate’s “blue room,” bring forth a peaceful oasis bedecked with books.

Of Ben it’s asked: “What gave him this courage?” I wondered the same of the author.  For this is a brave novel, debut or not, that digs painfully deep into racial hatred.  At times, Grissom says in her thoughtful Author’s Note, she was drained by the writing.  But I think the reader is strengthened by the courageous voices who come through to us with a loud, very important message: We must never forget all the Mama Maes, who graced us with their woefully understated words: “Times, this life not easy.”


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The Fortune Hunter 2

An Empress, a Horseman, and an Heiress/Photographer:  A Victorian-era romantic triangle (England, 1875): The first word that comes to mind to describe Daisy Goodwin’s second historical novel is: delicious.  (The same can be said of her debut, The American Heiress.)  Since a New York Times testimonial on The Fortune Hunter’s star-studded cover said it first (“Ms. Goodwin writes deliciously”), let’s expound.

When was a novel’s dialogue your favorite part?  Goodwin’s award-winning British TV company, Silver River, prides itself on “taking a concept to the screen in the most entertaining way possible.”  So it stands to reason the author knows how to write dialogue in the most entertaining way possible.

Dialogue that is so clever.  It’s flirtatious, teasing, witty, flamboyant, sycophantic, compassionate, catty, loving, perceptive, and brimming with tidbits of British history under Queen Victoria’s reign – depending on which of the numerous characters is being depicted; many inspired by real figures.  Peopled with upstairs and downstairs characters from England, Scotland, Hungary, and an exuberant American photographer from California who contrasts his “country that is still being imagined” against “every patch of earth [in Britain] has a story,” the settings are central England’s prime fox hunting countryside, where such English country houses in Leicestershire (Melton Hall) and in Northhamptonshire (Althorp and Easton Neston) still loom marvelously and so “monstrously out of scale” we see them as characters too.

The incisive prose takes us inside the passions that drive the three main characters: fox hunting, steeplechase riding, and photography (for “viewers to see their characters, not their situation in life”).  All together, the result is an enormously entertaining novel, one you’ll regret when it closes on page 468. Mind you, none are wasted pages, for the dialogue is precise, getting us quickly inside the heads of these three characters:

THE EMPRESS:  Given “the mystique of royalty is a precious thing” and the Empress graces the stunning cover, let’s start with “the most beautiful woman in Europe,” Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also Queen of Hungary), nicknamed Sisi.  At 38, she’s been unhappily married to Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph since sixteen, a stifling life of “layers of custom and faux servility” under a spotlight she finds painfully dull except for her portrait painted by Winterhalter, with her extraordinarily long hair studded with diamond stars.  Sisi was, as she appears here, obsessed with her beauty, figure, and athleticism, had a pet monkey, and detests being photographed, fears her laugh lines will show.  Then again, “perhaps it was more important to find something to laugh about.”  The only time she feels free is hunting, so she’s escaped to England for the challenging Pytchley hunt, where the “idea of a galloping queen was peculiar and splendid.”  Surrounded by her devoted countess, baron, and cavalieri servanti, they cater to her whims (like raw veal skin treatment) and watch her every mood.  It changes in England when Captain Bay Middleton, a great English horseman, becomes her “pilot” guiding her riding, already accomplished and fearless.  Around Bay, she’s determined to seize “a chance at happiness.” How could he (or anyone) refuse her?  And so the romantic triangle begins to take shape.

THE HORSEMAN:  Bay isn’t in a position to refuse the piloting assignment because his commanding officer and equerry patron, Earl Spencer, Sisi’s friend, has summoned him to do so.  (The “Red Earl” is Viscount Althrop.  Yes, the same Althrop as Princess Diana’s childhood home – another slender beauty also unhappily married, whom the author draws parallels to.)  Bay is a “ladies man,” a gift and a curse.  History says he did have an affair with that married woman, Lady Blanche Hozier; perhaps her child, Clementine, was his? Just one of the juicy pieces of British history since Clementine later married Winston Churchill.  While it’s true Bay was Sisi’s “pilot” and there were rumors about their relationship, the romance here is Goodwin’s invention.  Bay’s womanizing is the subject of constant ridicule, which he endures gracefully; he’s even self-deprecating about it (“I am not the sort of man that makes mamas happy.”)  While he enjoys “being in the center of things,” he’s not full of himself.  Confused about his emotions, he’s most endearing when he expresses his compassion for his horse, Tipsy.

“You know what you are getting with a horse, whereas with a woman all you can see is what’s on the outside.  You can see a horses’ soul the moment you ride together but with a woman – well, I don‘t think I have ever met a woman who says what she means.”

THE HEIRESS/PHOTOGRAPHER:  Charlotte Baird is the diamond in the rough in the novel.  Also drawn from history, she’s the least well known of the triad.  A wealthy orphan due to inherit the Lennox fortune when she turns 25, she’s come to London from the Scottish Borders to be under the guardianship of her Aunt Adelaide (Lady Lisle) until she reaches the age of majority, 21, months away.  What a welcome contrast to Sisi!  She knows she’s “not the most striking looking girl in the room” (although Bay falls for her grey-blue eyes, the “color of a blue roan” he rode in Ireland), but her whimsical disdain for the pretentiousness and trappings of royalty, refreshing spirit, strong sense of self (“The one advantage of being motherless is that you learn how to make up your own mind about people”), and way of seeing the world through the lens of her camera wins our hearts.  When Bay starts paying attention to her – he’s her first suitor – she ignores jealous warnings that he’s a fortune hunter.  Charlotte’s not afraid to stand up for herself against her so-called protectors: Fred, her pompous, annoying brother, who cares more about himself and the family fortune; Augusta Crewe, her petty, “affected and calculating” soon-to-be sister-in-law; and Captain Chicken Hartopp, a friend of Fred’s from his cavalry, the real fortune hunter.

The repartee between Charlotte and Augusta is so good.  When Augusta warns Charlotte that “Captain Middleton, who comes from a modest background, is a fortune hunter,” Charlotte replies: “If that is the case, he does a much better job of concealing it than anyone else.”  Or, the time Charlotte is called upon by her mentor photographer/godmother Lady Dunwoody (inspired by the British photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden) to come to Holland Park, London to help her assemble a photographic exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society.  Augusta swoops in to remind Charlotte that nothing is as important as helping with her wedding, to which Charlotte replies: “But Augusta, as you have often pointed out, I know very little of the fashionable way of doing things … Forgive me, if I would rather go somewhere I can actually be of use.”  Touche!

Bay may find Charlotte “full of contrasts” but it’s Bay’s feelings for Charlotte and Sisi that are confused.  He finds himself spending more and more time with the Empress, yet he very much “likes the idea of making Charlotte happy.”  The stakes get higher when Charlotte inadvertently takes a photograph of Bay and Sisi exquisitely mounted on horseback readying for the hunt, capturing the intensity of Bay’s expression looking on at Sisi.  Since the “camera doesn’t lie,” Charlotte must confront the admonishments about Bay.  Are they true?

Just as the fox does not “run in a straight line” … “the endless circling and doubling was the element that made hunting so fascinating,” so too is the circling back and forth between Bay and Sisi and Charlotte.  We know which star we’re wishing for, but Goodwin keeps us guessing until the very end.


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Restoration & Merivel: A Man of His Time (sequel)

King’s Fool and Friend: The Highs, Lows, and Contradictions of a 17th century man (Restoration: 1664 – 1668/England; Merivel: 1683-1685/England, France, Switzerland):

Just as Restoration opens with Sir Robert Merivel – a lavishly imagined historical character we get to know so vividly over these quick-turning 800 pages he feels real – recounting “five beginnings” of his life, let’s start by listing five ways this posting is unlike any other:

  1. The review is a double-package.  Merivel is the sequel to Restoration, originally published in the UK in 1989, and nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  I read both to see how well Merivel stands by itself.  While it does (many times the reader is brought up-to-speed), you may feel greater compassion for Merivel having seen how far he’s come if you read both.
  2. 17th century England, the “Age of Possibility” when King Charles II was restored to the throne, is 200 years earlier than my historical fiction preferences.
  3. I love books whose prose is uplifting.  But Merivel is a man of many contradictions (“I’m a paradoxical thing” he tells us) – manic and melancholy (he cries so much he wears out handkerchiefs).  Since this is a penetratingly honest account of twenty years of his insatiability – insatiable lust, greed, and quest for purpose – the prose soars when his moods are joyous but plunges when he despairs.
  4. The prose is extraordinary but not always “enchanted.”  Merivel’s younger years, in Restoration (we meet him at 37), are more hedonistic than 15 years later when we meet him again in Merivel: A Man of His Time.  Sometimes the prose startles in its vulgarity and graphical depictions, but as Merivel grows more searching, loving, noble, so marks the prose.  When he speaks “soul-to-soul” about his love for animals, nature, music, art, the King, Pearce, his manservant, his daughter, the prose enchants.
  5. The prose never feels gratuitous.  In fact, Rose Tremain confirms this in her eye-opening “Afterward” to Restoration, explaining her fictional intentions.  She reached far back in history to a grandiose King who had so many mistresses (at least 8 I found in historical references, claiming 17 illegitimate children), to give fictional integrity to anything goes!

The result is immersive prose, an unforgettable fellow, and a powerful warning that resonates today.

A brief timeline of Merivel’s beginnings: 

1636:  Merivel at age 9 performs his first dissection.  Later, he excels in anatomy when he pursues medical studies in Cambridge, which explains his graphic prose

1647:  Meets his Quaker friend, John Pearce (“prone to Godliness”) in college

1661:  Father serves as glovemaker to restored King Charles II at Whitehall

1662:  Parents perish in a fire at their haberdashery shop, humanizing the Great Fire of London 4 years later

1664:  Forgoes medicine to serve the King, makes him laugh, is his tennis partner, saves his spaniel, Lou-Lou. (Animals play an important role in both novels.  Not all are commonplace, like an Indian Nightingale and Clarendon, a bear.)

1664:  A grateful King sets Merivel up in an estate in Norfolk that comes with a monthly stipend on the condition that he marries, in name only, one of his mistresses, Celia Clemence.  Merivel must promise not to love her for she belongs to the King, who wants to placate a jealous mistress, Lady Castlemaine.  Poor Queen Catherine!  (She does not produce any heirs.)

Bidnold, Merivels’ estate, looms large.  As he delights in changing its character, he reveals some of his:

“It was a Jacobean manor, moated and bordered by a substantial park … Though struck by its drabness, I rejoiced in it.  For from these plain rooms, I decided at once, I would fashion interiors that reflected, in their crimsons and vermillions, in their ochres and golds, in their abundance of colour and light, my own excessive and uncontainable nature.”

Bidnold may be magnificent, but the countryside is isolating and brutal in the winter, triggering loneliness and boredom for the restless Merivel.  Without doctoring, he must find other means for “enlightenment.”  He starts by aspiring to be an artist, hoping the painting “as wild, as undisciplined, as excessive as my own character” will “make me whole.”  His attempts to play the oboe, lead him to wonder:  “Does music teach wisdom?” “Does it civilize the soul?”  What music does is awaken him to the beautiful voice of his wife, hence her beauty, hence his downfall.

Merivel’s adventures take many roads.  One leads to re-discovering his old friend Pearce at Whittlesea, a Quaker mental hospital, where he joins the staff in the “service of the common good.”  Within this bedlam, he further disgraces himself by impregnating Katherine, a patient.  As Restoration draws towards its ending, sadly, this will not be the only time Merivel mourns his “beastliness” and “the peculiar ways in which, without meaning to, we sometimes bind ourselves to another person for all eternity.”

Merivel:  A Man of His Time opens with Merivel’s adoration for his seventeen-year-old daughter, Margaret, strengthening his likability.  When she departs with friends for Cornwall his depression deepens, along with self-reflections.  Tremain cleverly capitalizes his Feelings and Thoughts, emphasizing them.  Loneliness, Poverty, Poisoning, Suicide, and Meaninglessness are laid bare as five possible endings for Merivel’s destiny.

Still, he yearns for Wonders.  So Merivel dreams up the idea of traveling to Versailles, where King Louis XIV reigns, King Charles’ cousin.  Clutching the King’s letter of introduction, he hopes to serve another monarch.  Versailles, a “Song of Magnificence and Beauty,” dazzles him, like the room with 100 mirrors.  Along the way, he encounters a Dutch clockmaker, Hans, who signals a theme of time, ever more pressing.  Merivel is also touched by the predicament of a caged bear (“I don’t know why the plight of animals moves me so greatly.  Perhaps it is that I have never overcome my own Animal Nature”); poverty (“the great scourge across the land”), and a woman he meets, Madame Louise de Flamanville, whose father owns a chateau in Switzerland.  He is now 57 years old and craving Lightness of Heart.

As Merivel struggles to find peace, we cannot read fast enough to learn whether he has predicted his destiny.  By now, we care about this flawed, passionate, charitable, philosophical man.  When at last we find him ensconced in a comforting room back at his beloved Bidnold, reflecting on how much he “liked to sit, sometimes, and watch the Alterations of the sky, and listen to the wind, and feel that I was above the world and yet floating in its beauty, like a cloud,” we so wish his destiny to be floating in beauty.  But Merivel is a most contradictory soul, whose spirit we’ve come to know rather intimately.  So we brace ourselves for the coming clouds.


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Backlands: A Novel of the American West 7

Darn good, old-fashioned Western storytelling: Western nostalgia and the beauty and serenity of southern New Mexico (1920 – 1943):  Second in a trilogy, Backlands illuminates New Mexico’s heart and spirit in a family saga as expansive as the landscape.  By centering on one family – the Kerneys – it offers a personal understanding of how the years of the stock market crash, Depression, Dust Bowl, Civilian Conservation Corps, and WWII’s Army Specialized Training Program affected the lives of hardworking ranching families in New Mexico’s desert Southwest.

The Tularosa basin, where much of the novel is told, lays in the remote backlands of the San Andres mountains overlooking the Mescalero Apache reservation, a “land of hidden canyons and wide mesas and high pasturelands and forested mountaintops and rugged mountains.”  The prose is “quiet, serene, and calming” resonating the scenery of the Tularosa:

“an expanse that filled the eye, stretched beyond blindingly brilliant sand dunes to the south and dangerous, ink-black malpais to the north.  Most days the basin shimmered under crystal-clear skies, with mountains looming and lurking in all directions.”

Backlands stands well alone.  But its feel-good values are so beautifully told you’ll be sorry when it ends and anxious for the final chapter.  If you can’t wait, or need another reminder about freedom and the “Code of the West” that vividly reveals “what kind of life a person lives” – especially when that life is physically, emotionally, and financially challenged – treat yourself, as I intend to do, to the saga’s beginnings, Hard Country (1875 – 1918).  The prose and the deft storytelling are a tonic.

The creative writing maxim – write what you know – is skillfully on display.  Not only is New Mexico the author’s home, but I reckon his psychotherapy and social work background is why the novel is so heartfelt.  (In the same way that McGarrity’s extensive law enforcement experience undoubtedly plays into the success of his Kevin Kerney crime series, a dozen penned from 1996 to 2008 prior to creating this New Mexican epic, called a prequel to the Kerney mysteries.)

As a fine Western novel should, this one is filled with colorful stories and characters that sweep us along its 503 pages.  They all revolve around the central character, Matthew Kerney:

MATT:  You’ll visually watch him grow from ages 8 to 30.  He loves his Ma, his horse, reading, education, and a beautiful gal, Beth Merton, who has come to New Mexico from Cleveland to be healed by its dry climate in one of the State’s TB sanatoriums.  We see him as a cowboy, a cattle rancher, an engineering student, an auto mechanic, a forest service ranger, and an army officer.  He’s a good, obedient boy and a very decent man who goes through a lot of tough times, often feeling an “empty weariness about life.” But he’s brave and resilient.

EMMA:  Matt’s Ma.  She has a serious heart condition, is fiercely independent, a smart financial planner, and divorced early from Matt’s Pa.  That’s why some of the novel is set in Las Cruces, where Matt and Emma live, not on Pa’s Double K ranch in the Tularosa.  While she gets lonely, it’s “not as important as my freedom.”  Emma has earned notoriety for having endured a roundup trail drive.  Perfectly introduced to us at the time of the passage of the 19th amendment, the women’s right to vote, she’s a terrific example of how a ranch woman’s life was more equal to a man’s in the early 20th century than a woman’s from the East.  That accounts for her native counterparts praise when a famous Western writer, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, writes a story about her cowboying escapades, yet she’s scorned by those eastern women.  Rhodes is one of several authentic New Mexican historical figures nicely folded into the novel.  He wrote about the beauty of the Tularosa, his stories serialized in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, but he’s all but forgotten – except for now.  Perhaps Rhodes’ poetic writing inspired the author to bring him back to life?

PATRICK:  Matt’s ornery Pa with a past that haunts him.  One of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, so he’s not afraid of hardships but a disagreeable character whose estranged from Matt, does best alone, and while not physically abusive to Emma hurt her “with words and looks.”  To his credit, he cares deeply about the Double K ranch, “one of the nicest outfits on the Tularosa” despite its lack of modern conveniences.  His character shows us that sound agricultural practices and foresight matters in the cattle ranching business, under the constant stress of weathering nature and financial crises.

PATCHES:  Matt’s pony is to be appreciated because “you can learn a lot about a man by his horse.”  In fact, “sometimes a man’s pony can be his best friend, the most important critter in a cowboy’s life.”

THE IGNATIO & LUCERO families:  Teresa Ignatio is Matt’s maternal aunt, and Nestor and Gaudalupe Lucero are Matt’s neighbors in Las Cruces.  Both Mexican families pay tribute to the historical heritage of Hispanics in settling New Mexico and the role of the Catholic church; gracious hospitality and fiestas; and the “closeness and affection” of proud families – proud of their traditions and their State.

AUGUSTA & CONSUELO MERTON: Gus, a professor at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanics in Las Cruces and his wife Consuelo are the beloved and watchful aunt and uncle of Matt’s “wonderful love” Beth.  Their hacienda is a great example of New Mexico’s ubiquitous architecture: thick adobe walls, “low-beamed passages” that sprawl onto an open courtyard with endless views of the desert.  Beth is another strong female character: she dreams to become a doctor.

VERNON CLAGETT: What would a Western be without an outlaw?  This one allows the author to depict New Mexican law enforcement in the early 20th century.

ERNIE PYLE and BILL MAUDLIN:  Pyle, the renowned WWII reporter and Maudlin, Pulitzer-Prize winning WWII cartoonist, add two more compelling New Mexican historical figures to the cast of characters.  They help tell the fascinating story of New Mexico’s role in WWII: Operation Husky.

There are more characters, more stories, but to say more would be a spoiler.

With all this telling of tales comes a delightful mix of old-fashioned, Western language – hornswoggling and lickety-split and hogwash and greenbacks and jake – and a swell balance of depicting New Mexico’s “stark beauty” against its parched lands and sobering history.  As Matt’s friend, Boone, declared when he set eyes on the Tularosa: “I’ve never seen anything like this place.”  You may feel the same, when you see it through the visually evocative prose.


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Chaplin & Company

Being different, being alike: an orphan, a canal boat community, and the silent world of mime (London, present-day):  It takes courage for a debut author to pen a novel full of odd and unlikable characters in an unfamiliar setting.  It also takes originality.  And a respect for the reader’s sensibilities to care about these unconventional characters when the inviting prose brings you close to a place that’s “a halfworld up, a halfworld apart.”  That’s what British author Mave Fellowes has done, drawing us in from the opening pages, quietly, poetically:

“London in August.  From above, the city shimmers and glints in the sun.  There is so much activity on its surface that it looks crawling, swarming with movement, as if it is one whole living thing.  But look closer and this is just an impression given by the million little channels of movement that cross, curve, diverge, and wind between buildings.  These channels glitter.  Look closer still.  Sunlight flashes back from the windscreens and the roofs of the coaches, lorries moving across the surface of the city.  The machines chug out a quivering exhaust which softens the edges of the buildings and blurs outlines.  It is thirty degrees of dry, dusty heat and London is baking.”

Not surprisingly, with a little googling, we can learn that the author once lived in a house overlooking these “little channels of movements” – 2,000 miles of historic waterways – where “narrowboats” (less than seven feet wide, designed for Britain’s narrow canals; up to 2012 managed by British Waterways, today by Canal and River Trust) float along towpaths and under bridges on water that’s “in love with the moon.”  Chaplain and Company takes place on the Little Venice canal, near London’s Paddington and Regent’s Park.  And yet, “life on these waterways is lower than life on the streets around it.  It is below the eyeline.  A good place to hide.”

The offbeat characters hiding and drifting along in this dreamed up canal boat community include:

Odeline Milk: The heart of the story.  At 19, she’s the oddest of them all.  She dresses oddly, acts oddly, and has chosen an unusual artistic aspiration: mime.  She senses she “breathed a rarer air,” but isn’t sure if she’s “better or worse”?  She’s performed as an illusionist at children’s parties, but adamant she’s “an artist not a children’s entertainer.”  Her ho-hum accountant mother, Eunice, who laughed at her tricks, bought her magic business cards, has passed away, which leads her to discover her father’s identity when she sorts through her mother’s paperwork.  When Odeline learns she’s named after her father, a clown in a traveling circus, the epiphany is life-changing.  Now she knows where she gets her “gift for movement,” her artistic passion, and her “butterscotch skin.”  Her father’s nomadic lifestyle inspires her to leave her quaint yet stifling village of Arundel for London, for a floating home.  She dreams to be with him.

One of the delights of the novel are glimpses into the silent performing arts world of magic and mime.  We hear of 19th century English magicians, Maskelyne and Cooke, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplain, and Marcel Marceau, Odeline’s idol.  (She owns 19 of his books.)  Her everyday dress and accessories are borrowed from these silent artists – bowler hat, baggy pants, oversized “brogues,” red “braces,” and a prop box she drags around.  When we meet her, she’s also antisocial, barely eats, paranoiac, fanatical about keeping track of finances and her plans in a notebook, unable to say thank you, and has difficulty discerning when “she has discovered a terrible thing, or done a terrible thing herself.”

Chaplain & Company: Odeline’s historic narrowboat, listed here as an important character because the boat feels alive: she “breathes” and “sighs” and endures.  Such a clever name, attracting Odeline to buy it with her inheritance, yet it has nothing to do with the legendary Charlie.  Its history becomes known to us over time.  Stay with it, because it’s interesting information about the history of narrowboats during the war, and because it tells us something about living a life different than our own.

John Kettle: Canal boat warden and Odeline’s nemesis.  He’s a disagreeable alcoholic, dirty, and prejudiced against persons who are bi-racial and Asian.  When he shouts profanities, Enchanted Prose winces.  Fellowes hints at an earlier life as a “submariner,” when he was “better at life.”

Vera: A big waitress who works at the canal café.  She dresses in flashy pink tracksuits and floral skirts, is glued to international news, harbors a secret, and is scared of her powerful boss, Mr. Zjelko.

Ridley: Odeline’s heavily-tattooed neighbor, owner of Saltheart, another apt name, we discover.  In fact, he and Vera are rather likable.  It’s Odeline’s slow acceptance of their friendship that absorbs us.

We may think these colorful characters have nothing in common with each other, or us, but the brilliance of the novel is the way the story unfolds to show us that they do.  The shared human thread: loneliness.  The prose feels intentionally matched to the world of canal boats and mime, “not grand or flamboyant” but gentle and purposeful.  The characters go through their share of disappointments but we’re on the lookout for hope and goodness.  It comes to us the way “sunlight seems to bounce piercingly off the triangle of water, making liquid stars” – magically.

Fellowes you’ll see knows how to wave a magic wand.  Lorraine

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