This week Evie Woolmore reviews a short story and a set of short stories, both rich with atmosphere, and a historical novel full of detail.
Leah and her Twelve Brothers by William Saunders (available at Amazon UK and US)
This collection of short stories has both a timeless and a very specific period feel to it, fusing a sort of Edwardian curiosity about the world with some quite contemporary touches. Leah waits at home while her twelve brothers explore the world, and she receives from each of them four gifts, borne by somewhat caricatured natives of the cities they are visiting. Leah weaves a story from each set of gifts, and then ponders its significance with one of three gentleman callers.
It is an interesting premise for a story collection – something of Sophie’s World meets Aesop’s Fables – and they often work well when woven together with a theme or narrative. Indeed in this instance, the collection allows the author to explore some quite philosophical and metaphysical ideas, as well as some moral ones. Leah is in some ways the most interesting of the characters, though for this reader the repetitive format of her receipt of the gifts, the encyclopaedia entries, and then the long opening descriptive prose passages of each story could have taken more variety. For while we learn much about Leah’s imagination, we don’t learn much about her character. Her male companions are rather stifling of her at times, and she never really develops very much, which is a shame because despite her imaginative stories, outside of them she never becomes more than a passive recipient of her brothers’ gifts. She is described in almost exactly the same way in the collecting of the knife to open the exciting gifts in each story, a technique which quickly feels contrived. Yet surely here is a heroine who has the capacity for something more interesting than just cutting string and being tied in knots by her interlocutors. One is put in mind of Flora Poste in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm both in terms of heroine and that future/past quality of the setting, but Leah sadly does not reach Flora’s potential, which this reviewer found rather disappointing.
The other curious feature of this collection is the introductory scene and interlude in the middle which, to this reviewer, did not add anything and seemed to appear out of the blue. It isn’t used as a framing device at the end, no conclusions are drawn by those characters, so its function in the collection is not clear, and it seems superfluous when Leah’s own rituals are a strong frame in their own right. The stories themselves are an interesting collection, tending towards the dark and thoughtful, regarding death, loss and jealousy amongst other themes. There is a sense towards the end that the later stories are less strong, less challenging than the earlier ones – indeed, one of Leah’s admirers says to her after the eleventh story, “That was not much of a story”. In that case it is striking that although Leah says she wanted to “think of a sunny garden” in this particular story, as “not all has made me think well of the big wide world”, the author has not capitalised narratively on this situation for Leah, which again seems something of a lost opportunity. We also never really understand why Leah’s brothers are travelling, nor why she has been left at home, and in that sense the thread again feels a bit contrived towards the end.
Nonetheless, this is a descriptively vibrant collection drawn from a very wide range of characters in exotic locations, and its general readability should recommend it to those looking for something to dip in and out of easily.
Seven Out by Kevin Moore (available at Amazon UK and US)
This short story set in inter-war America is also in a sense a story within a story, a 1930s radio tale framed by the experiences of the man who is listening to it. Wil Driscoll and his partner in crime Albert Crow are traders-cum-theives of antiquities, and they are on a Mississippi riverboat, tailing their quarry and a historically unique prize. Wil, a former WW1 pilot, and Albert, a part-Native American historian, make a fun pair, the action hero and the thoughtful strategist, though the story is written from Wil’s point of view. It’s a straightforward tale: a deal to secure an item goes wrong and, trapped on the riverboat, our two characters must sort things out and save both the artefact and themselves. It’s got a good pace about it too, rattling along with a reasonable balance of description and dialogue, though Mr Moore does struggle at times to manage the essential challenge of the short story, which is to give enough information to provide atmosphere and context, without making it feel like an information dump, and without slowing the pace. In the opinion of this reviewer, Mr Moore is not always that successful, for the information is bulky at times in its sheer quantity – character backstory, context information, and description – and the narrative style is also a bit over-detailed. It could be that this is meant to be a stylistic reference to the radio story-telling style, but in which case it should then be more conspicuously dramatic and not just feel over-written. Sentences such as ‘The cabin door stood menacingly ajar” and “That specific piece of tangible history”, as well as the very detailed explanation of the craps game, make reading harder work than the tale deserves, in some places. If the intention is to have the story told in the style in which it might be read aloud on the radio, then some stylistic polishing would have made that more effective.
I’m also not really sure about the function of the framing narrative, the man listening to his radio at home. What is his purpose? Could it be that this story is in fact ‘real’ and that this is just the first or one of a series in which we will learn more of Wil and Albert’s adventures, and the blurring between ‘story’ and ‘frame’ will start to blur?
Nonetheless, this is a speedy, light read, which evokes the derring-do of days gone by. I sense that Wil Driscoll may have more adventures in him…
Victor’s Rage by Katharina Gerlach (available at Amazon UK and US)
This review refers to the English translation.
Victor’s Rage, the first in the Waldmann family saga, is a book of somewhat epic proportions, spanning two generations in the history of one family. Set in the turbulent history preceding the formation of Germany from its different principalities, the novel has strong social and political overtones as well as the more domestic dramas facing its characters. The novel essentially focuses around two relationships in two different generations, each of them characterised by the will of the characters to make their own choices. The author shows us how complicated life was in a strongly hierarchical society where personal choice was often sacrificed in favour of financial or social expediency.
The author has also had the benefit of being able to draw on a very rich body of research, but for this reviewer the author has used far too much of that content, and has as a consequence created significant problems in pacing. The challenge in any historical novel is to do justice to the setting, and historical novelists often have a greater conscience about accuracy than is typical of other novelists. It is never merely about the story, but the setting too, and Ms Gerlach has clearly taken her responsibility extremely seriously in this novel, as it is obviously a matter close to her heart.
In Victor’s Rage, however, a combination of the frequent use of German terms, huge amounts of historically precise explanation, justification and motivation for character actions, and long tracts of political and social discussion all really congest the narrative and slow the novel down considerably. And, in this reviewer’s opinion, that is to the detriment of the story-telling. There are also a lot of characters to take note of early on.
This may be a situation where the book is less suited to an e-book format, for there were innumerable occasions when this reviewer wanted to be able to flick simultaneously back and forth between the glossary of German terms the author provies, and also the details of the characters. In particular, the list of character information would be much more effectively presented in a family tree format, allowing quick appreciation of relationships, and easy identification of names. But that may be something that just doesn’t work as well in the e-book format.
If you have an interest in history of this period, or like a saga that is thoroughly rich in detail, then this is definitely a book for you. However, if you prefer a novel that prioritises drama over the context, then you may find the frame too obtrusive around this detailed portrait of history.