Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s sea-soaked novel The Mercies is as unflinching as it is intimate. Told through the perspectives of two women brought together by circumstance and hardship, it is as much a love story as it is an impeccably researched account of what it might have felt like to live as a woman at the northern edge of the world during a time when the smallest deviance could become a witchery death sentence. Hargrave’s book is moving, menacing, and marvelous.
This novel is an absolute achievement in historical fiction. Griffith’s writing is immersive and physically visceral. Hild’s world is painted in full color. The depiction of the constant anxiety that accompanied the people of this time period, especially women (even those with significant power) breathes reality into the characters. The vying of belief systems as Christianity gains a political foothold in Britain creates a compelling overtone of tension that always lingers above the more personal power struggles at play. The love and fear both feel real. The novel would benefit from some more aggressive editing, as certain phrases and trains of thought were oft-repeated. As many other reviewers have noted, more complete educational tools are also needed to help readers track the many figures at play in the complex war games that span decades. It was enough for me to know that Hild saw the full “warp and weft,” though, and I cannot overstate how transportative the writing is when at its best.
The Essex Serpent is a thought-provoking, lushly gothic read that imagines an Austen-esque heroine in her darkest timeline. Sarah Perry, much like her insatiably curious heroine Cora, unearths everything she can find within her narrative, revealing pieces of debates about religious belief, social obligation, and the nature of friendship. It’s a story filled with the pursuit of forbidden desires and is really fairly devoid of redemption–which is, I think, exactly the point. Mythical serpents are always better in our minds than seeing the truth flayed on the shore, and Perry plays with this idea in human nature. What if the things that we wanted to happen–with our friendships, with our fascinations, with our attractions, with our deaths–were all actually granted? Would it be what we wanted and hoped for? Or would we rather cling to the mystery of what our lives might be like? The novel brims with life, but also with defeat. An absorbing read.
Lincoln in the Bardo is simply a brilliant work of art. George Saunders takes the historical truth of President Lincoln’s grief over his dead son, and imagines it into a bizarre and stunning meditation on the unseen tension between the living and the dead. The story’s mouthpiece is not one, but rather a cacophony of restless ghosts–a structural risk that pays off admirably for Saunders, creating something as weird and gorgeous as it is indelible. The novel romps, slinks, and keens through the liminal space of haunting, exploring the uncertainties of identity that characterize our uneasy relationship with mortality. This book is remarkable.
Larry Watson shows us what extremely clean, precise literary writing looks like in Montana 1948. Watson’s narrator takes the defining secret from his Montanan family’s past and slowly unfolds it for us, remembered through the lens of his twelve-year-old self’s point of view. The result is a quietly explosive look at a family’s sudden breach of normalcy, and their response to a challenge of values. The brightest moments are in the little characterization touches that are stunning in their nuance, and the overall sense of place that permeates this Western parable. The story is simple, but gets to that place where fiction feels true. Watson effectively explores what the idea of freedom means to different kinds of people when they live in a place wild enough to allow the space to commit any deed one might be able to dream up… at least until somebody else finds out about it.
Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list when it came out in 1980. The book also made its way, along with the rest of the series, to my mother’s bookshelf. When I discovered it as a young middle schooler sometime in the 90’s, I wasn’t allowed to read it. So I thought it was about time! This novel is still captivating, and its power comes from the meticulous, extensive research about ancient people groups that comes through so clearly in Auel’s prose. The writing is not particularly artful in craft, and I wouldn’t say that the book is without pacing problems, but it’s still an addicting (almost guilty) thrill for the modern reader. This book set my imagination on fire. It prompted me to do a bunch of research of my own on neanderthal people, their technologies, and their relationship with early humans. Also: holy cow was I emotionally invested in these characters! This book has that wonderful transportative effect that takes you into the adventure and makes you want to fight, love, and feel alongside the characters. If you missed The Clan of the Cave Bear the first time that it was a big deal, and you have any degree of fascination with a world where people hunted mammoth and lived in caves, do yourself a favor and take this ride with Ayla, Creb, Iza, Brun, and the celebrated Jean M. Auel.
Posthumously published by Michael Crichton’s estate, Dragon Teeth brings us one more dinosaur-related Crichton adventure, this time focused on the intense and very personal paleontology wars of the late 1800s. The novel is based on real history–the rivalry between professors Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh is really enjoyable and chuckleworthy, even more so because it’s historically accurate. The core story, however, is fictional; the main character William Johnson is Crichton’s invention, who seems to embody the romanticized sense of adventure that is often associated with the Wild West. I hesitate to criticize the book, as it wasn’t truly finished by Crichton, but I would simply inform would-be readers that it’s a simple, pulpy, predictable but fun read. Anyone looking for an enjoyable fictionalized primer on the early days of American paleontology can dig this read. Anyone looking for an appropriately complex exploration of how scientific expeditions factored into the European colonization of the American West will want to seek out meatier fare.