Belgravia, by Julian Fellowes

This 2016 work is an old-fashioned novel, appropriate, perhaps, for a story set in the 19th century. And a not unexpected tale from the creator of Downton Abbey, the highly successful television series. It is about two families, the wealthy and aristocratic Bellasises who live in Belgravia and the wealthy Trenchards, who are nouveau riche, having made their money by developing properties, including in Belgravia. The two families are joined when, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1814, Edmund Bellasis and Sopha Trenchard meet, fall in love, and marry.

Whereupon, Edmund is killed at Waterloo, and Sophia dies nine months later in childbirth. But the baby, Charles, survives, and the remainder of the novel moves into the 1840s, where that child has become a highly successful cotton entrepreneur. And when this successful man catches the attention of the Bellasises, along with that of the Trenchards, it is more than coincidence. Indeed, it originates the complicated plot to follow, as many in the two families wonder at the interest in the other. Especially the Bellasis, who do not know that the Trenchards had sent the baby away to be raised by a Reverend Pope in order to protect the reputation of their deceased daughter.

The novel’s complications then increase as the Bellasises not only learn from the Trenchards of the connection, but also that Charles’ parents were not truly married before the Battle of Waterloo. Which means Charles is illegitimate. And so is not worthy of receiving the Bellasis inheritance. And also that Sophia Trenchard’s reputation, by giving birth to an illegitimate child, is tarnished according to norms of Victorian society.

It is the discovery of such developments and then the concealing of the disgrace that draws the reader initially into this novel. Indeed, I was continually reminded of the novels of John Galsworthy, as this novel becomes a dual family saga in which members of each family plot to make sure they will preserve or inherit the wealth and reputation of their respective families, and in which servants downstairs try to advance their own careers by discovering why each family is treating Charles so well.

But even more than the plot, my interest was initially driven by how well Fellowes has caught each of his characters, especially those upstairs but also their servants. With incisive comments, he brings us inside their thinking, revealing both their own goals and their reactions to the strategy of others. Some are good people and some are not, as they pursue the possibility of wealth and comfort, or revenge, for themselves.

Indeed, as is summarized in All About Romance: “The characters are scheming, conniving, and unscrupulous, kind, generous, and affectionate, and everything in between.”

And as an aside, the author has also used the services of an historical consultant to establish concrete details of the Victorian era that make this environment convincingly real. Moreover, as Daisy Goodwin writes in The New York Times, the novel reflects the influence of the Victorian era in another way. “The plot devices,” she writes, “will be familiar to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Victorian fiction: There are missing papers, duplicitous ladies’ maids, gambling debts, dubious marriage lines and long-lost heirs.”

It is these various maneuverings that help the many characters jump off the page. There is ambitious James Trenchard who yearns to be accepted by the aristocracy, his wife Anne who finds social climbing distasteful, their son Oliver who disappoints because he wants to be a squire rather than a businessman and who is jealous of Charles’ success, and, finally, Oliver’s wife Susan who resents her husband’s advances and whose social ambition gives her a roving eye.

On the Bellasis side, there is the Countess of Brokenhurst who is initially disdainful of the Trenchards but who is drawn towards them when Anne tells the Countess that both have this grandson named Charles, and she knows where he is. While the husbands of the two women play minor roles in this novel, a nephew of the Countess does not. This John Bellasis is perennially in need of funds and is used to being supported by the Countess’ husband. Until now. Which makes him resentful, like Oliver, of what he considers the favoritism being given to Charles.

To further complicate matters, John is engaged officially to the beautiful Lady Maria Grey. But Maria, who has agreed to marry him only at the urging of her mother, despises John for what he is—and, when she encounters Charles, falls immediately in love. We thus have a love in the present that mirrors Sophia’s rapturous love in the past. And one that contrasts with Susan’s antagonistic relationship with Oliver.

This resentment by Oliver and John increases the suspense of the novel, as they both seek to learn why their own families are so enamored of Charles. They enlist, at times through deceit, the help of others, especially that of Susan but also some of the downstairs servants. These crafty maneuvers to learn the truth about Charles drive the suspense of the final pages, including a plan to murder Charles that highlights the novel’s climax.

I found this novel to be fascinating reading. Not least because of what Moira Macdonald cites in The Seattle Times. That is, the elaborate plot includes “contentious inheritances, forbidden love affairs, secret pregnancies, sibling rivalries, caddish high-society misbehavior, disloyal servants, and sumptuous frocks.” But interest is also driven, as I wrote, by the incisive characterizations. Which often results in cross-purpose plotting by many of these individuals, some of which succeeds and some of which fails.

Fellowes has written other novels, but they have not been what made his reputation. This novel will certainly advance his name in the literary world, but the fact that it will also be adapted to the visual media seems to suggest where his deeper commitment still lies. (September, 2019)

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

This 2014 work is an unusual novel, almost not a novel, just a searching portrait, though one beautifully crafted. But then it introduces its story, the story of the Swain family, and turns itself into a still unique but marvelous novel, marvelous because, not least, it makes a beautiful connection between life and literature.

“We are our stories,” the books narrator Ruth Swain announces at the beginning. “We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only now live in the telling.” Ruth is a bedridden teenager trying to bring her father back to life through his books. And she refers to many of his 3,958 books as she does this. “I’ve read all the usuals, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Hardy, but Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined. But right now I’m reading RLS. He’s my new favorite. I like writers who were sick.” And Robert Louis Stevenson was, like her, an invalid.

Faha, the town in Ireland where Ruth lives, lies on the banks of the Shannon, another character in her story—not least because it is a source of salmon. And fishing, a pastime of her grandfather, was passed on to her through her father, Virgil Swain. Indeed, with her memory of her father highlighted by his effort to be a poet, she suggests a poem created is like a fish caught. “A poem is a precarious thing,” she writes, “It is almost never landed clean and whole in one go. Virgil had a phrase, one bite, that’s all. But he wouldn’t let it go, and as poetry is basically where seeing meets sound, he said the phrase aloud…and found in repetition was solace of a kind.”

But before telling that story, she must tell how her English family moved to Ireland, about the town of Faha, the life of a farming community, the details of the house they lived in, and then about Virgil’s courtship of her mother Mary, and the birth of herself and her twin brother Aeney. And, finally, about the Swain family curse, the Philosophy of Impossible Standard, that one must always strive for perfection, even if it will never be attained.

We are now at the halfway point of the novel—and nothing has happened. There is no story. All is past. All is mood. And not just a literary mood, but the long Irish failure through history, the Swain family failures, and now the failure of Virgil to cultivate his farm, with its rocky terrain, and the constant rain that blocks out an invigorating sun. And yet, the reader perseveres, because the telling, the language, has been beautiful. And as Ruth finally warns us: “This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander.” And later: “I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a river.”

We persevere because we are entertained by Ruth’s astringent style, such as describing her grandfather’s marital status in Ireland. He has sired three daughters, and not yet his son Virgil, and has becomes bitter toward his wife. “But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically-speaking, and then, boys, you were rightly stuck. That Will Teach You, was Number One sermon at the time. Number Two was Offer It Up.”

What Ruth believes in, and author Williams believes in, is books and literature. This novel is filled with the books that Virgil has bought and read, and that his daughter Ruth wishes to read to understand him—and to recreate him for us. This dedication becomes truly real when she refers to the title, edition, and publisher of each book she cites. But more significant is that she recalls certain passages that apply to her own life or to that of her family.

Thus, she felt a humming when her father read to her. “He just made this low thrum. John Banville would know the word for it, I don’t. I only know the feeling, and that was comforting. I lay in his lap and he read and we sailed off elsewhere. Dad and I went up the Mississippi, to Yoknapatawpha County, through the thick yellow fog that hung over the Thames or in through those dense steamy banana plantations all the way to Macondo.”

But there are tart references also. Following “Amen to him,” on the death of a despised ancestor, she suggests a counter-balancing “Awomen.” Or: “Look at Edith Wharton, she’s Henry James in a dress.” And then there are human insights, like when Virgil returns from his honeymoon to move in with his wife’s family: “Dad moved in with the baffled deepsea shyness of a character just arriving in a story already underway.” Or: “In a single moment the two of them shared a look that said those things in silent mother-daughter language, that would take a hundred books and more years to tell.” Or: “We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” And: “The fact is grief doesn’t know we invented time. Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves.”

These final lines come toward the end, when Ruth concentrates on Virgil, whose passion for reading has led him to pursuing poetry. But he is up against the Impossible Standard. Will he break the family curse, and allow himself to succeed? The final pages become truly beautiful, as Ruth imagines her father alive in the afterlife of her own book, this story she is telling.

“If I’m alive this is my book, and my father lives now in the afterlife that is a book….And my book will be a river…and be called History of the Rain, so that his book did not and does not perish, and you will know my book exists because of him…You will know that I have found him in his books, in the covers his hands held, in the pages they turned, in the paper and the print, but also in the worlds those books contained, where now I have been and you have too. You will know the story goes from the past to the present and into the future, and like a river flows.”

They cannot avoid the river Shannon that flows along the banks of the Swain’s farm, nor the rain that falls continually in Ireland. From clouds to rain to the river and back into the clouds. It is a natural cycle, not unlike the literary cycle from life to books to reading and then back to another’s life. Or: from life to death to eternity, and then back to living again through one’s books that survive. Ruth herself suggests this when she writes of “a river flowing ever onward between writers,” as she seeks to recreate her father’s life in order to understand him, and then present him to us. (August, 2017)

The Fall of Light, by Niall Williams

This 2001 novel comes to us as a legend. It is about a father and his four sons who journey across Ireland, leaving their home, their life, and a stubborn mother behind. The author pretends—or does he?—that this is his family, that he is passing down family tales that have been enhanced by each generation. That is, he writes in the tradition of Irish story telling.

But the proposed reality does not matter. What matters is the beautiful language that is characteristic of all of Williams’ novels, and which is perfectly suited here to the novel’s legendary tone, to its tale of Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, an era of poverty just before the Irish famine that led many families to cross the sea to America.

The adventures of the five Foley men begin as soon as we meet them. They are swept apart as they attempt to cross the raging River Shannon, and their father disappears, leaving the sons alone. Is their father lost? Will they ever see him again? And, later, will each of the sons also reunite, when circumstance also separates them? This novel offers the tale, a romantic tale, of each family member—of Francis the father, of the son Thomas, the twins Finbar and Finan, the youngest son Teige, and Emer, the stubborn mother who has refused to join them.

Frances is a dreamer who has refused to raise his sons to a life of poverty. He steals a telescope from the manor house at which he works, and will forever spend free time gazing through it at the stars. It is a perfect symbol of his desire to escape a family life of poverty, of dependence, and to fulfill his dream of a more satisfying life. It may even be reflected in the novel’s title, as the light of the stars falls toward him on earth.

The oldest son, Thomas, encounters the beautiful Blath, and his pursuit of her makes him the first to be separated from his brothers. We shall later follow him as he crosses the Atlantic and then crosses the United States, joining an army engineering team as it scouts future railroad routes. The remaining three sons are enraptured by a caravan of gypsies. Finbar is seduced by the woman Cait and will follow her troupe across Europe, where he will become its leader with a yearning to return home. His twin Finan joins the gypsies for a while; but, to atone for a crime, he will leave them for a monastery and become a missionary in Africa.

The prominent son in the novel is Teige, whose skill at horsemanship first pleases the gypsies, as he wins a traditional race on a white pony; but he refuses to join them and uses his skill with horses to work for a rich landlord whose daughter seduces him and changes his life. Indeed, his visits to her bedroom at night represent the romantic high point of this novel. But the two have different dreams, and he, too, will cross the ocean, and there will survive because of his skill with horses.

But we are following these characters from the perspective of a legend, and, like many legends, there are high points; but legends also may arrive at uncertain conclusions. And that is true here. For there is no climactic ending, no rush of emotion, as we learn the fates of these characters. What we have, instead, is an imagined future in the mind of their father as he stares at the stars, stares into their future and the future of his family.

He will scan the skies from an island in an estuary of the River Shannon, where he and Teige have built the family’s new home, a site that is the geographical center of this novel. Indeed, it is this isolated island in the estuary that the characters regard as home turf—much as all Ireland sees its identity to be in this small island off the coast of England and France. The Foley’s cluster of buildings also represents the perspective from which the author tells this family story.

As Diana Postlethwaite quotes in The New York Times, ”Always the story returns there. . . . It is as if the teller understands that the island is an image for all Foleys . . . something passionate and impetuous . . . that made each of its men islands in turn.”

To criticize, there may be a little too much coincidence in this novel, both when circumstances seem to change the course of a life—such as a raging river, a seductive woman, or the arrival of gypsies—or when these individual characters have separated and then, casually, rejoin. And yet, this is a legend, after all, enhanced by generations of retelling—and why might not coincidences have crept in to fill certain gaps?

Another mild criticism I have concerns the extended details of some of the brother’s adventures, particularly of Finbar with the gypsies. Granted, the author wanted to include the stories of all four brothers, along with the father, but I was more interested in the adventures and fates of Frances and his two sons, Thomas and Teige. Thus, the long sojourn of Finbar with the gypsies does slow down this novel, even if his will continually draws him toward home on that estuary island.

What ties the book together, indeed, is this sense of family, the yearning the five men have for each other, their continual thinking about the each other, and their desire to be together. This is emphasized by the island home the father and Teige build for themselves. And it is held together by the telescope and the stars, by the dreams of the future they represent. It is a fitting romantic dream that belongs in a legend.

Some have criticized this novel because of its romantic view as well as its coincidences, but Williams might have cast this story as a legend because he was aware of precisely that. Certainly his typically rich and poetic writing style is appropriate to this tale he regards as a legend. And certainly this reader, who is a romantic at heart, will continue to indulge in more of Williams’ novels. (January, 2017)

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

This is not a novel about resurrections, as was its predecessor, Life After Life. But it is about that novel’s characters, the Todd family. It is also about World War II England, post-war England, and about one branch of the Todd family over three generations. And, oh yes, this sequel is a marvelous novel.

This 2015 work is about Teddy, the brother of Ursula, the heroine of Life after Life. There is little here about Ursula. It is also about Teddy’s wife Nancy and their daughter Viola. And about Viola’s children, Bertie and Sonny. It is thus about three generations, and extends into the 21st century.

The purpose appears to be to draw a picture through this family of life in England in the 20th century. Not a historic portrait, but a personal one. A portrait of travail (Teddy in the air force), of a self-centered life (Viola), of an unsettled youth (Sonny), of a harrowing death (Nancy), and of old age (Teddy again). On second thought, it is more a portrait of life itself, through this family’s life.

And yet it is more. It is also a portrait of mankind’s nature, his violent nature, exemplified mainly by the bombing of Germany in World War II. In fact, the author says that the inspiration for this novel was an urge to write of that bombing, just as the London Blitz inspired her writing of Life after Life. But if that was her inspiration, she has written here about much more. Indeed, she also writes that this book is about the Fall (of Man). And it is. Such as being about the treatment that many family members endured.

These family events range from mercy killing to child abuse to emotional indifference, and then to cruel foster parents and cruel nursing homes. And one marvels at how well the author gets inside the separate family members, who are either involved in those events or are victims of those circumstances. In Teddy, in Viola, in Nancy, in Sonny, etc. And these characters remain consistent, even if the events are unconnected, like distracted memories. At certain points, Atkinson even advises us of events decades into the future, rounding out a character’s life when least expected.

She has thus written a portrait of life that includes death, but a life that also encompasses tragedy, suffering, and acceptance, as well as dreams of happiness and fulfillment. This scope is underscored as the author moves back and forth in time, taking the emphasis away from the narrative flow of family history and focusing on the separate events and the significance behind those events. More on the meaning of what happens to this family of man than on what the family members achieve themselves.

Deserving particular mention are the scenes of Teddy piloting his Halifax bomber in various runs over Germany, not knowing each time whether he is going to survive, but believing in what he is doing, even if it means this quiet, reflective boy is raining tons of explosives onto innocent women and children. And all this, with anti-aircraft shells bursting around him, with German fighters buzzing at him like gnats, and with neighboring bombers, carrying flyers whom he knows, suddenly bursting into flame and crashing below. It is a marvelous feat of research and imagination—even if the bombing is not condemned, as in an anti-war novel.

And then comes the ending, when the author turns things upside down. The reality of the novel becomes fiction and the author’s fiction becomes our reality. That is, the reader is asked to accept that Atkinson has made everything up—just as Aunt Izzie early on turned Teddy’s real life into that of a fictional character named Augustus. The author writes: “This sounds like novelist’s trickery, as it indeed perhaps is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”

Oh, yes, I think there is. It did not with Life After Life, where the trickery, the resurrections, were at the heart of the novel. But it is wrong here, when it comes only at the end—and as a surprise. No. It is too arbitrary. We are asked to accept that what has happened in such detail has not happened. I was going along with the ending, with Teddy dying in his nursing home, and imagining that he has actually died in the war. For it makes death come alive to him. And to us. It even makes psychological sense for a novel that is about death—as well as about life. And, indeed, exemplifies the Fall of Man.

And I also admired the figurative collapse of a building at the end, as buildings did fall, both in the Blitz and in Germany as a result of the Allied bombing. And I accepted this as a metaphor for the ending of a life, Teddy’s life. There is even the paragraph that begins: “Moment’s left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment.” It is a beautiful description.

And then this is taken away from me? In order to mirror Life After Life, when a death is not a death. That now a life is not a life? Atkinson calls it “a great conceit,” says it is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.” I think not. I do not accept that she has collapsed the walls of her novel to reveal it is fiction rather than real. Fiction is real, must be real, internally, for the reader to accept it.

Which is not to say I do not recommend this novel. I do. Highly. For its portrait of a family, of the uncertainty in war, and of postwar England. I just do not accept the author’s twist at the end. An attempt to merge its theme, perhaps its meaning, with the novel that precedes it. The two novels don’t need it. They are a pair anyway, with their portrait of a family, the portrait of separate aspects of a war, and the presence of death.

The title of this novel is taken from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins.” The god in this case is Teddy. “When men are innocent,” Emerson continues, “life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Teddy’s life was defined by his bombing career. “The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do.” Also: “Part of him never adjusted to having a future.” Thus, his long life is passive. He fathers a child, oversees grandchildren, writes about nature, but does little else, and then dies quietly. He is truly “in ruins.” Also, an innocent. So…is this an anti-war novel, after all? (December, 2016)

Flesh and Blood, by Michael Cunningham

This 1995 work is Cunningham before he found his literary voice. I did finally get caught up by this family at the end of their saga, but for much of this book it is a kind of bildungsroman, a family saga novel in which three generations come of age and a lot happens. But it is life happening rather than one or more characters influencing or motivating the actions of others. And this is the kind of novel that does not appeal to me.

Because, while there is a maturing inside the characters, there is an absence of interaction that prompts the reader to want to know what comes next. That may also be why each time I returned to reading about this family, I found it difficult to remember where I had left off. There was no moment of action, no event, that had me wondering what would be coming next.

But at the end, the characters do begin reacting to the family situation, and to the arrival of death and their own vulnerability. And I ended up being unexpectedly moved by this novel. Moved not so much by the individual fate of the characters as by an interactive portrait of family life that I could relate to.

This novel basically covers the years from 1958 to 1995, a period of significant social change. It begins with a beautiful, ambitious Mary and a shy, immature Constantine falling in love and marrying. But then the portrait of Constantine changes, for once he has children he becomes an old-school protective father, a strict disciplinarian. Whereupon, Cunningham becomes more interested, anyway, in the children: Billy (later Will), Susan, and Zoe. Will discovers he is homosexual, Susan marries a lawyer and enters an unsatisfied but comfortable life, and Zoe has an affair with a black man who leaves her pregnant. This rich material extends through the novel, but while the characters interact with sympathy regarding each one’s situation, they really do not affect each other’s situation.

The final portion of the novel introduces Ben, the son of Susan, and Jamal, the slightly younger son of Zoe. Ben is quiet, and is troubled despite his comfortable life, but we cannot more than suspect the source of that trouble until the end. Jamal is more outgoing but as a half-black boy has his own problems.

Two other major characters are Cassandra and Harry. Cassandra is a friend of Zoe’s, a transvestite, a man whose dress and social life is that of a woman. She was for me the most interesting character in the book, not least because she was very outspoken about who she is and was not afraid to bluntly advise others about their lives. Indeed, she is appreciated by the conservative Mary, who recognizes how much she has helped Zoe.

Harry, on the other hand, is not complex at all. In fact, he seems to serve mainly as an opportunity for Will to be a sexual person and to have an emotional life that is never probed. (Only father Constantine reacts to it.) Perhaps it is because I know the author is gay, but my reaction to Will and Harry is that that their relationship is never developed, and that it exists chiefly to enable the author to treat the fact of homosexuality and, early on, to describe intimate homosexual scenes. I will acknowledge the effectiveness of one such scene, however, in which a stranger lets Will seduce him and then reveals he is to be married the next day and just wanted to have such an experience before his life changed. The unfairness of a gay man’s life in that era really hits home in this scene.

My problem with this novel is that I did not care for these characters as much as Cunningham obviously did. The details of family life, the understanding that each of the children and the mother shows for the others, in fact, made me wonder how much this work may be autobiographical. This was particularly true of the gay life here. Of course, other parts may not be, because the children of this family are carefully split up to express three different life styles, the gay life, the traditional suburban life, and the life of a single rebellious girl in a world of drugs and poverty. Cunningham sympathetically portrays each child, of course, even as he exposes their failures to fulfill their dreams, thus suggesting that their suburban origin is not all it’s cracked up to be.

To sum up, this work was a disappointment until the end, when death enters and the children are finally forced to react to each other’s situation, especially to that of Zoe and Cassandra and that of Susan through Ben. A tacked on explanation of the rest of their lives was unnecessary, however, even as it leaves Jamal as the surviving heart of the family. In fact, its main purpose seems to be to reflect the traditions of the old-fashioned novel. Not that the family stories told here are old-fashioned at all.

This novel will deflect me from searching out more early Cunningham novels, but I am still interested in his more recent work. When gay life is at the heart of the novel, such as coming to terms with it, it works for me in literature. But when it is on the periphery, and yet is explored, it turns me off. Yes, the author wants to present how natural it is in some people, but I do not need to follow it into the bedroom—as I do not need to in straight love stories, either. (December, 2015)