The City of Falling Angels – Novel Review

The City of Falling AngelsReaders who loved John Berendt’s first book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will find The City of Falling Angels equally as fascinating. In Midnight his book opened with a mysterious murder and Berendt then went on to explore the city of Savannah , its colourful history and many of its most eccentric inhabitants who were somehow involved in the crime. In The City of Falling Angels he follows a similar formula as it also begins with a violent act but this time it is the burning of the Fenice Opera House in Venice in January 1996.

Berendt arrives in Venice three days after the fire that totally destroyed one of the most beautiful buildings in the island city. Venice is full of rumours as the authorities try to determine whether the fire was an act of arson or an unfortunate accident. Berendt, who has always loved Venice , decides to stay on in the city and do some investigations of his own. First he rents an apartment in a 17th century palazzo and then he moves on to a cottage that once belonged to Olga Rudge, the mistress of disgraced American poet Ezra Pound.

As in Midnight Berendt is irresistibly attracted to local eccentrics, many of whom are the descendants of people who were the patrons of famous literary figures like Robert Barrett Browning and Henry James. He introduces us to Ludovico De Luigi, a surrealist artist; Archimede Seguso, one of the last master glassblowers in Venice ; and the decidedly unusual Ralph Curtis who is obsessed with aliens and space travel, despite being one of the heirs to a magnificent palazzo. American and English ex-patriates abound, all of whom are eager to share their “truth is stranger than fiction” stories of Venice with Berendt.

This book is a must read if you have ever been to Venice and wondered about what really went on behind those awe-inspiring facades. Clearly falling angels can take many forms and Venice is home to them all.…

Birds Without Wings By Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without WingsLouis de Bernieres paints on a wide canvas. His setting is Turkey from about 1900, amidst the collapse of the old Ottoman Empire, through the horrors of the First World War and the Gallipoli campaign to the founding of Ataturk’s secular, modern state. In Anatolia, a small community mirrors the destructive forces unleashed by this crumbling edifice and the tensions caused by difference and incompatibility.

Prior to the upheavals in their lives, the Anatolian villagers have livedlives of quasi-Edenic tolerance, mixing education, friendship, even love. Yet, like any Eden, this state of affairs cannot last and a serpent enters, trailing clouds of dissension, suspicion, intolerance and violent bigotry with it.

Like de Bernieres’ enormously successful and hugely readable Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, history here is observed through the little people, the victims of the massive forces of grand movements and imperial posturing. We are treated to an ant’s-eye view of history through the priest, the imam, the landlord, the village beauty and the community¹s boys. Observing all is the village seer, Iskander the Potter, with his grasp of philosophy and religion. According to Iskander, “Man is a bird without wings . . . and a bird is a man without sorrows”. So de Bernieres¹ themes are the sorrows of war, nationalism, religion and history and their impact at a personal level.

From this perspective, Birds Without Wings does not disappoint. It is crammed with the product of painstaking research that enlivens these villagers. The book, unlike the birds, soars endearingly with the complex, interwoven tales of the individual villagers’ search for happiness, successor love. It is not hard to envisage the searing heat or the intense cold of the Anatolian mountains, or to smell and hear the village, so detailed is de Bernieres in his description. This detail is at its most impressive linguistically, with de Bernieres in full command of the English, Turkish and Greek that he uses.

Birds Without Wings, however, does represent a major departure from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. History here is not seen solely from the underside. We do not just follow the fortunes of a disparate set of Anatolian peasants. De Bernieres here includes the history-makers as well as its takers. Half the book essentially follows the life and career of Mustafa Kemal, also known as Kemal Ataturk, the victor of Gallipoli and father of modern Turkey. The material is non-fiction and assembled from a number of historic sources. Herein lies a major structural flaw with the book – the tension between fact and fiction and the cross-pollution between the two.

The non-fiction tends to dominate towards the end of the book, at the expense of the fictive characters. In addition, the characterisation of Ataturk himself is thin. He remains an enigma from the pages of history, with no interaction with the fictive characters and without the imaginative life of the villagers, some of whom fight for him. He is only seen from a third person perspective but whose? We are never to know.

The inclusion of historical material begs several questions. Unlike, say, War and Peace with its historical background, here that canvas is centre-stage. To what extent is de Bernieres’ account of the appalling
conditions of Gallipoli subservient to the requirements of his fiction? Whynot research the ramifications of the Versailles Treaty in any decent history of the twentieth century? In the end, the two narrative strands are not woven into one seamless whole and the novel as novel, or the history as history, are the poorer for it.

De Bernieres’ focus is the processes of history, from the global and imperial to the mundane and personal. The book closes with the Epilogue of Karatavuk the Letter-Writer. He returns to the trope of the wingless birds and their relationship to the sweep of history. He writes: “You and I once fancied ourselves as birds, and we were very happy even when we flapped our wings and fell down and bruised ourselves, but the truth is that we were birds without wings . . . For birds without wings nothing changes; they fly where they will and they know nothing about borders and their quarrels are very small. But we are always confined to earth, no matter how much we climb to the high places and flap our arms. Because we cannot fly, we are condemned to do things that do not agree with us.”

The novel allows us an overview of both winged and wingless birds. But despite the high places to which it takes us, these birds will never fly together. This novel is really two books – both immensely enjoyable on their own terms but, nevertheless, separate.…

Baker Towers – Book Review

Baker TowersIn Jennifer Haigh’s debut novel Mrs Kimble she traced the lives of three women who, at different times, were married to the same man. In her equally remarkable second novel Haig has turned her attention to one family who live in a small western Pennsylvania coal town called Bakerton over a span of some 40 years, from the late 1920’s until the 1960’s.

Bakerton is full of ethnic neighbourhoods but the two groups that dominate are the Polish immigrants who tend to live on Polish Hill and the Italians. For young Italian seamstress Rose it is love at first sight when she sees Stanley Novak, a handsome Polish miner, at the grocery store but initially he doesn’t even notice her. However within two years they are married, living on Polish Hill and the parents of a son called George, the most American name they could think of.

Over the next twenty years Stanley continues to works in the coal mines while Rose cares for their five children, giving birth to her youngest child Lucy, at the age of 43. By then the United States is at war and oldest son George is in the Navy, stationed in the Pacific. Rose’s oldest daughter, Dorothy, is as beautiful as her mother but even more timid. Middle sister, Joyce, is the most intelligent of the five Novak children and her teacher hopes that she will go on to college. Sandy, the younger brother is both charming and unreliable. Despite the fact that money is limited, the Novak children are essentially happy. Rose showers them with food and love while Stanley is a strong role model who embodies the Puritan work ethic, even if he is a Polish immigrant!

When Stanley dies of a heart attack in 1944 the older Novak children rally around their mother but it is obvious that their father’s death will lead to major changes in all their lives. Over the next twenty years each of the Novak children leaves Bakerton and seeks to attain his or her own version of the American dream. George marries a wealthy socialite but finds that money and happiness do not go hand in hand. Dorothy looks for love and excitement in Washington but discovers what she is looking for back in Bakerton. Joyce joins the army to see the world but eventually returns to her hometown both sadder and wiser. Lucy leaves Bakerton to go to college but she too is drawn back to her family home and to old loves. Sandy is the only one of the five Novak children who appears to break free of Bakerton.

Baker Towers is both a study of one family and of an entire way of life. The Novaks represent all immigrant families who became the backbone of modern America. George and his two sisters are also representative of all the young men who went to war and all the young women who held everything together while the men were away. In Baker Towers Haig has succeeded in capturing another time and place while at the same time creating memorable, believable characters. There are no heroes or villains – there are only ordinary people trying to live with integrity in an increasingly complex world.…

The Harmony Silk Factory – Review

The Harmony Silk FactoryThis three-part novel, set in Malaysia , is an intriguing story – containing elements of family saga, gangster underworld and whodunit. The first part tells the story through the eyes of the son, part two is the mother’s diary and part three is the reminiscence of an Englishman resident in Malaysia for most of his life. Each person tells the story of Johnny Lim – father, husband and friend.

Johnny’s early life is spent in the Kinta Valley as a nobody drifting from town to town. Eventually he is employed in a textile shop which ultimately leads to him meeting the beautiful Snow Soong, daughter of the valley’s wealthiest man.

In 1940 they travel, on a belated honeymoon, in the company of a strange mix of men – two Englishmen and a Japanese professor – to the legendary Seven Maiden Islands . One of these men is aesthete Peter Wormwood who is fascinated by Snow.

This is a compelling novel that works on many levels. The author provides an insight into the situation of the Chinese in Malaysia and the dilemmas facing a population about to be overrun by another nation. The Harmony Silk Factory is also a powerful love story.

Stephanie Mortimore…