30 September 2010

Edith's War

By Andrew Smith
Published by Axiom Publishing Inc.
Copy courtesy of Andrew Smith

Edith Maquire got married because Joe Maguire was off to war and he wanted somebody to come home to. It all sounded terribly romantic to young Edith, so she agreed. Now, Joe is at war and pregnant Edith is living in Shrimpley with Joe's mother and younger brother.

It's 1940. The Maquires' war is okay for them so far; they have chickens in the yard and food in the kitchen. Liam Maquire, full of youth and propaganda, starts trouble with his Italian neighbours. But the Maquires and Baccanellos will have none of it; long-time friends and neighbours - and far out of the reach of the cities - they believe they will remain friends and neighbours for some time to come.

However, within hours of Mussolini's declaration of war against Britain, Winston Churchill issues an internment order against Italians living in Britain, and the Baccanello males are scooped up and taken away for the duration of the war.

It's 2002. Will and Shamus Maquire, children of Edith Maguire, are strolling the streets of Venice awaiting the arrival of their eighty-three-year-old mother. It's to be a reunion of sorts, at Edith's behest.

The book goes back and forth between Edith's life during WW II and her sons wondering why their mother wants to see them. Smith does a credible job of putting the internment of Britain's Italians under the microscope covering everything from the torpedoing of the Arandora Star on its way to Canada to internment camps in Liverpool, helping to shed light on a little-discussed topic.

The lives of those left to live out the war is also examined, and we discover that the definitions of proper and acceptable behaviour change the longer the war goes on.

Andrew Smith has written a totally believable novel, creating wonderful characters in a beautifully written narrative. Recommended for both those who like history and those who like good fiction.

19 September 2010

The Mistress of Nothing

By Kate Pullinger
First published in 2009 by Serpent's Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
Winner of 2009 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction

Who was Lady Duff Gordon? Was she the beautiful and intelligent woman who entertained politicians, writers, and great thinkers of the day? Was she a tragic figure who had to leave her family in England to move to the dry air of Egypt due to her tuberculosis? Was she a generous woman, willing to help anyone who asked? Or was she a mean-spirited woman who turned on her long-time maid in the most spiteful manner?

According to Kate Pullinger, Lady Duff Gordon was all of these.

While this book has Lady Duff Gordon at its centre, Sally Naldrett is the core. Sally is Lady Duff Gordon's lady's maid and the narrator of the story. She moves to Egypt to care for her Lady and falls in love with the people and its customs. Being an English maid without any English customs to adhere to gives Sally and her Lady a set of freedoms they never before experienced; freedoms which can change your life's expectations.

This was a selection for the Bool Club. Although we all liked the book well enough, three of us thought it took more than half the book before it became compelling reading. There was a divide in the discussion on whether or not Lady Duff Gordon had made Sally feel she was more a companion than a maid, thus leading Sally to believe they were on friendly terms, or whether Sally should have known there would always be a line drawn between a British Lady and her maid no matter where in the world they should live.

Although this book was terribly slow to get going, it turned out to be quite interesting and, eventually, I was unable to put it down. This is an easy read and a good book for anyone interested in historical fiction.

06 September 2010

Second Fiddle

By Mary Wesley
Published by Black Swan
Originally published in Great Britain by
Macmillan London Limited, 1988

Claud Bannister, 23, meets Laura Thornby, 45, at a concert. Claud is there with his mother. Laura is there because the conductor is her current lover. Martin is there because the British government has him following Clug, the conductor, who is from Roumania and may or may not be a spy. Claud instantly falls for Laura, as does Martin, who finds that tailing Clug is not that much of a hardship as long as Laura is around.

Laura doesn't fall in love; she prefers to love 'em and lose 'em. But Laura is quite intrigued with Claud and guides him from boyhood to manhood, filling his head with ideas for his novel, and helping him open a market stall. She manipulates him to the point where he thinks her ideas are his own and he has fallen madly in love with her.

Laura's personal life is a deep pit of mystery. She prefers to be alone in her orderly, non-cluttered life, not getting attached to people or things. She is mostly cut off from her family, which consists of her mother and her uncle. Speculation is that her uncle is also her father - it's never quite made clear. Wesley has the habit of introducing darker themes in her novels and then leaving them to the reader to decide; after all, a good book doesn't have to spell everything out for you.

Second Fiddle is full of village life, where everyone knows everyone else's business and the Thornby family are accepted, although talked about as the oddities they are. Wesley covers incest, alcoholism, and suicide in her usual style - deal with it and move on. Don't let the darker themes of this novel put you off - this is an interesting novel full of simmering back-stories that will entertain and intrigue you to the very end.