Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell, is a rocking ride on the historical fulcrum point of a spring 1921 meeting in Cairo—where the Middle East was divvied up according to the various theories and negotiating skills of a small group of primarily European strategists.
Agnes Shanklin provides a first-person context that ranges widely and thoroughly through the years before, with the dire impact of two waves of epidemic influenza sandwiching the raw meat of the world’s bloodiest war. Her teacherly persona perfectly expresses her ability to tackle this broad sweep of influences with such informed passion. If you are a curious reader but distinctly allergic to nonfiction, this novel is so believable, and its history so remarkably tuned to today’s current events, that it can serve as historical text.
The book jacket calls Agnes ‘charmingly diffident’, and hers is a voice that disguises the difficult work of historical explication in the simple self-deprecation of a well-brought-up young woman with a domineering mother. In a writing student’s efforts (mine) to explore the concept of voice, this one is remarkably understated. In a world of pseudo-rebellious snarkiness and pseudo-strong machismo or just plain cold violence, Russell’s success with this story gives relief from the hype.
My colleagues are away for spring break trips to Cozumel and Hawaii, while I happily explore—after work–Bombay, the island of Guernsey, and Paris.
Thrity Umrigar’s book, The World We Found, reveals the lives of a group of formerly rebellious college friends from India. One of the friends had moved to the once-maligned U.S. and married; with a just-diagnosed brain cancer, she frames the narrative with her desire to see them again before she dies.The rest lived out unexpectedly different stories in a world unsettled by politically-contrived bigotries prone to violence. The story’s fullness is achingly sweet. Despite their various failings, the characters help a reader understand and forgive and experience both the joy and sadness expressed in their often difficult choices.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, caught me right up with the narrator’s engaging voice, a war-time humorist sick of comedy but comically so, as described through letters to her publisher. A random connection, made through a second-hand book with the narrator’s address in it, slowly opens the window onto the world of Guernsey, until recently isolated by Nazi occupation. Despite a story frame as simple as a writer looking for something worth writing about, the stories within the frame are compelling, drawn along as they are by a central tragic shero. The frame’s own narrative progresses in an opposite, but connected, arc of love and hopefulness, which provides the balance to bear a reader through the dark realities just past.
With Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, prose lovelier than anything I’d lately found kept me reading long past the point where I felt abandoned by any intriguing storyline. In a more expansive mood, I’d be happy to finish the whole book, just for that melodic lilt of Hadley Hemingway’s voice. But I’m not on vacation. I have a day job and a novel in heavy revision, as well as the next one in the wings already calling me to rise at 4 a.m. for research. And since my task right now is seeking inspiration for the craft of a story, my strongest recommendations stay with the first two books. I’ll take their lessons with me as I offer what skills I can conjure to the assorted stories carried by the people in Fracture.