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Author: Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland is a well-known writer of historical fiction, whose novels often features male protagonists. Great Maria is one of the few with a female lead character—and what a character she is.

The novel takes place in a fictionalized Sicily (the island off the “toe” of present-day Italy) in the 1000’s, during the time the Normans (of French heritage) were fighting the Saracens (Muslims) for dominance. I believe the place names Holland includes are made up, since I could not find them on any map of that region and era. It is therefore somewhat difficult to picture where the action takes place, although Holland’s descriptions are helpful. This article includes helpful background about medieval Sicily.

Maria is the only child of Robert Strongarm, a Norman baron. She has been managing her father’s household very competently since she was a young teen. She is convinced by her father to marry Richard, one of his knights. Richard and Maria have a stormy love-hate relationship. Although Richard comes to appreciate her management skills and hard work, he also wants her to be more compliant to his commands. Maria, however, has a mind of her own and puts it to use.

The story follows many years of Maria’s life in chronological order from the time she is 14. In the first chapter, Richard states as his reason for marrying Maria: “This castle’s at the throat of the whole region. . . . Someone is going to make himself great here, why should it not be me?” The overall plot is about Richard’s conquests, but that is in the background—the focus is on developing Maria as a character. The action really picks up when Richard assigns Maria, along with a small band of aged knights, to defend his newly acquired castle in Birnia while he and his brothers try to overthrow the Saracens in a different region.

Maria is a many-faceted woman and a strategic leader. She is a devout Catholic who uses plunder given to her by Richard to construct a chapel. She has a tender heart: she is actively involved in caring for her children, and does her best to help the peasants. Yet she feels no pity for those who are disloyal. She spies on her husband when she believes he is not being forthcoming with her. She takes counsel from her advisers but makes up her own mind. She bluffs her way out of dangerous situations.

Holland uses short, dense sentences which often combine setting, characterization, and action. This is how the novel begins:

Other pilgrims offered silver at the shrine; Maria brought an armful of wildflowers. She laid the vivid little blue blossoms down at the foot of the Virgin and smiled into the statue’s face. In the gloom of the cave, her flowers were the only color. Kneeling, she began the prayers she had come here to say. She asked for the rescue of the Holy Sepulcher from the Saracens, and for her father’s good health and salvation, and for her own call into the holy life. The raw stone floor was damp and uneven beneath her knees. The air lay icy against her cheeks.

In addition to Maria, the other main and secondary characters are also well-developed and vivid. I grew to care about the fate of those whom Maria cared about, and to dislike those whom Maria disliked.

I do wish Holland had included more of Maria’s inner thoughts. It was sometimes difficult to know how Maria felt about the tumultuous incidents around her, and sometimes I didn’t understand why she was taking certain actions. Yet perhaps this was by design: Maria likes to act, and is not terribly introspective. She is an unusual, memorable character.

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

I first heard about The Wife of Martin Guerre when I was looking for novellas by women, and ran across a comment that Vikram Seth (one of my favorite novelists and the author of A Suitable Boy) re-reads The Wife of Martin Guerre every year.  In a recent article in the Washington Post, book reviewer Michael Dirda praised it as one of the most perfect examples of the novella form.

The story concerns a young woman, Bertrande, living in the French countryside in the 1500’s, who marries a difficult husband, Martin. After she has a child, he disappears suddenly, and reappears eight years later, a kinder man. Yet Bertrande begins to suspect that this returned man is not actually her husband. She is a deeply religious person, and is tormented by the idea that she is living with a man who is not truly her husband. Will she accuse him of being an imposter, despite the fact that everyone in the family adores him and assures her that this is really Martin? The story starts calmly, but gradually becomes more and more gripping, building to an astonishing ending.

The writing style is spare but precise, imagistic, and emotionally evocative. Here is a section towards the beginning of the book, during the wedding celebration of Bertrande and Martin, both eleven years old. After the wedding feast, Bertrande is wandering around the dining area:

In the middle of the wall to the right, however, she spied a door, and toward that she gradually made her way. It proved to be the entrance to a long cold corridor, from which the doors opened into storerooms, rooms for the shepherds, and lighted only by a small window of which the wooden shutters were closed. Another person had taken refuge from the festivities in this corridor, and was intent upon undoing the bolts of the shutters. The half of the shutter folded back, a flood of sharp snowy sunlight fell into the corridor, and in its brightness she recognized Martin. She made a step forward, uncertainly, and Martin, hearing it, turned and advanced upon her, his hands outstretched and a fearsome expression on his long, young face. (p. 12)

First published in 1941, The Wife of Martin Guerre has inspired two movies and a nonfiction history book. Yet now it can be difficult to find. Seek it out—it is a gem. This slim volume (109 pages), based on an actual legal trial, is quietly and beautifully compelling.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, a writer of African-Caribbean heritage, expands on the story of Tituba, the black slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In an interview printed at the back of the book, Condé reveals that she learned about Tituba by accident when she got lost in a library. She became curious, and sought more facts about her life. Finding very little, Condé says “I decided I was going to write her story out of my own dreams” (p. 199).

Originally written in French, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem imagines the entire life of Tituba, from her conception on a ship to Barbados, to her move to Massachusetts, and to her death and beyond, within the space of 179 pages. It is unusual for a short novel to cover such a broad span of time and multiple settings. In addition, the book includes fantastical elements. After Tituba’s mother dies, she is raised by a woman versed in healing and magic, who teaches her to communicate with the dead, among other skills. As a result, Tituba’s dead relatives are frequent visitors.

Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death. If you’re looking for a novel that reveals Tituba as a misunderstood victim, this is not the book. Tituba is compassionate when it suits her, but she is also at times vengeful, and sometimes makes bad decisions despite the advice of her relatives from the beyond. Condé also plays with the idea of a “historical” novel by including a fictional character, Hester Prynne, in the middle, and by making Tituba aware of how she is portrayed (or ignored) in history and how she is remembered by future generations.

Given what I knew of the Salem witch trials, I expected a realistic, heavy, long novel. What I got was a dash through the life of an extraordinary woman who is determined not to be forgotten.

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

Purge was written by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, and translated from Finnish into English. It has also been translated into 49 other languages, and is billed as an international bestseller. The picture above is from the Finnish paperback.

The novel takes place in Estonia, and alternates between chapters in the 1990’s, and chapters from the 1930’s to 1950’s. The story begins with an elderly woman, Aliide, finding an injured young woman in her yard. Against her better judgment Aliide invites the young woman (Zara) into the house and takes care of her. We soon realize that Zara knows who Aliide is and has been looking for her, although Aliide does not know who Zara is.

What is the connection between Zara and Aliide? Why is Zara looking for her? These are just the first of many mysteries which the author develops as the novel progresses. While the story focuses on human relationships and personalities, it is based on historical events, so it is helpful to know some basic Estonian history (which I looked up in an encyclopedia). Here is what you need to know: Estonia was independent from 1918 to 1940, when it was taken over (against the will of most Estonians) by the Soviet Union. From 1941 to 1944, Germany occupied Estonia, and in 1944 the Soviet Union took over again. Estonia gained independence in 1991.

Knowing this history makes clear the significance of the novel’s dates. The modern sections take place in 1991 and 1992, shortly after Estonia’s independence, and the historical sections takes place from 1936 to 1951, shortly before and during the Soviet takeover of Estonia. Two maps in the book are helpful, and show that Estonia borders Russia and is separated by a narrow gulf from Finland. Zara’s home, Vladivostok, is a city at the other end of Russia, past Siberia, on the border with China.

I don’t want to give too much away about this gripping novel, but it is clear at the beginning that some of the characters fought for Estonian independence, while others worked for the Soviets. The novel prompts readers to consider issues of motivation, fear, and love. Aliide, in particular, is a fascinating character. Be warned that some parts of the novel are unsettling to read because of the abuse suffered by the characters. This is an unusual, complex, and discussion-worthy novel.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan

I’m not sure how to describe this beautiful novel. On one level, it is a mysterious love story between a Chinese prostitute, Fusang, in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1860’s and 1870’s and a white boy of German heritage, Chris. On another level it is an exploration of a Chinese immigrant woman at the beginning of the 21st century attempting to research Fusang as a way of understanding the history of Chinese people in San Francisco, as well as the relationship between Chinese and white people.

The Lost Daughter of Happiness  begins with the modern-day Chinese immigrant writer addressing Fusang. Here is a passage from page 2:

I know who you were: a twenty-year-old prostitute, one of a succession of three thousand prostitutes from China. When you stepped upon these golden shores, you were a fully grown woman. You had no skills, no seductive charm, not a trace of lust in your eyes. People could sense your distinctive simplicity the moment they met you.

Parts of the novel are told in a conventional narrative in third person. In other parts, the narrator speaks in first person, addressing Fusang as “you,” or relating information from the 160 books she has been reading on the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, or even talking about her own relationship with her white husband.

I found the story to be compelling and suspenseful, especially as Fusang finds herself in dangerous situations, and as Chris, who is only 12 when he first sees Fusang, attempts to get to know her. However, the novel is not always told in chronological order. Flashbacks and flash forwards force the reader to piece together the narrative, which can sometimes be confusing, but can also reveal surprises. Ultimately, I found the structure of the novel intriguing and thought-provoking.

Fusang and the other characters often function more as symbols than as fully developed characters. Sometimes Fusang can be a puzzling mystery who seems almost unreal to Chris and to the reader. Yet she is also a flesh-and-blood woman who experiences pain, sadness, and joy.

Although the author, Geling Yan, lives in the United States, she writes most of her books in Chinese. This book was first published in Taiwan and translated into English by Cathy Silber. I suspect that American readers might miss some symbolic references that would be apparent to a Chinese reader. For example, several times Fusang plays a haunting tune on her flute, a song called “Shepherd Su Wu.” I looked this up and found out that the song is a reference to a Chinese hero lauded for his faith and loyalty despite extreme stress. In case you’re curious, here is a performance of the Shepherd Su Wu song on flute.

If you are looking for a story with a linear plot and easy-to-understand characters, this is not the book for you. But if you enjoy magical realism and are intrigued by multiple layers of meaning, you might treasure this book.

For more information about Geling Yan, please see her web site.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites is based on the almost mythic Icelandic true story of 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman beheaded in public in Iceland (in 1830). The author, Hannah Kent, was a teenaged Australian exchange student in Iceland when she first heard about the execution of Agnes, and became fascinated. She then spent many years visiting Iceland and researching the story of this woman through oral histories and government records.

The jacket copy for this book is a little misleading: “Charged with the brutal murder of two men, Agnes Magnusdottir has been moved to her homeland’s farthest reaches, to an isolated farm in northern Iceland, to await execution.” From this it sounds like the murders were committed in a more populated part of Iceland, and that Agnes was moved to a remote area that was unknown to her. In fact, the murders happened in an even more isolated, even more northern part of Iceland. There were no jails in this part of the country, so Agnes was housed in the homes of district officials. After sentencing, she was in fact moved to the valley in which she had grown up, to a farm where she had worked as housemaid for a previous family.

The story is told through several points of view: Agnes tells us her memories in first person; the reactions of the people around her are in third person; and interspersed throughout the novel are government documents and poems written about, to, and from Agnes. I found the novel full of suspense from the beginning: did Agnes really commit these murders? How will the family react to her being housed with them? Why did Agnes request a young priest who does not know her to help her prepare for the execution? What is Agnes really like? What was her relationship to the murdered men? These answers are revealed slowly, painting a fascinating and complex picture of the character and actions of Agnes. Almost every main character who encounters Agnes changes as a result.

In addition to the nuanced characters, the novel is also compelling for its detailed descriptions of the scenery and life of northern Iceland in the early 1800’s: the endless work, the harsh weather, and the objects of daily life. A map of the region and a pronunciation guide are helpful. I also listened to part of the audiobook for the pronunciation of names and places. The writing style is simple, direct, and spare, yet full of emotion.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler is best known as a science fiction writer—one of the few African American women science fiction writers, and the first science fiction writer to receive a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. However, she has written at least one book which combines historical fiction with time travel.

Kindred was a best-seller when it was first published in 1979, and is still taught in schools and colleges today. I can easily understand why. It is an absolutely gripping novel: engaging characters and plenty of action and suspense, as well as thought-provoking situations that lend themselves to classroom discussion. I could not put it down, and finished it in two days.

Kindred begins in 1976, with an African-American woman, Dana, and her white husband, Kevin, unpacking in their new apartment near Los Angeles. Suddenly, Dana finds herself transported to the bank of a river where a white boy is drowning. She saves his life, and then returns home to her California apartment just as suddenly. She doesn’t know where she’s been, or who she has just saved. However, this becomes clear on her second sudden trip, when she is called to save the same boy, Rufus, now a few years older, from a fire he started. Upon questioning the boy, she finds out that she is in Maryland and the year is 1815. When Rufus reveals his full name, she recognizes him as one of her own ancestors.

It turns out that Rufus somehow has the ability to call Dana back to him whenever he’s in a life-threatening situation. However, each trip for her grows longer and more dangerous. Rufus is the son of a slave-owner, and each time she visits, Dana is in danger of being enslaved herself. During her third trip, Kevin tries to prevent her from being transported by grabbing onto her, and he is also transported with her.

Most of the novel takes place in the early 1800’s, with only brief interludes in 1976, so it is more of a historical novel than a science fiction novel. The time travel is the only science fiction device used in the novel, and there are no machines or other technology to make it happen. It just happens.

In a 1997 interview in Callaloo magazine Butler said the idea for Kindred came to her in college, when she heard a young man, part of the Black Power Movement, blame his ancestors for submitting to cruel and humiliating treatment. Butler realized that this man, and perhaps other young adults like him, didn’t understand that he wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the endurance his ancestors exhibited under extreme stress. Butler uses Kindred as a way of exploring how slavery changed both white people and black people. How does a slave-owner develop from an innocent child? Why might a black person choose to endure mistreatment rather than to fight back or try to escape? How might a modern African American cope with a life of slavery?

Kindred is truly a classic work of historical fiction, science fiction, African American literature, and literature in general. I just found out that a Kindred graphic novel adaptation will be released in 2017, so this wonderful novel should find new readers!

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

Before I read this book, I was familiar with the plight of the Japanese in North America who were forced into internment camps during World War II. But I had never given a thought to the situation in Japan after the war. The Translation of Love by Japanese-Canadian author Lynne Kutsukake shines light on the human story behind the American occupation of Japan after the end of the war.

The story is told in third person through the eyes of several people, both Japanese-born and people of Japanese heritage from North America. A Japanese-Canadian girl, Aya, and her father are deported to Japan after their time in an internment camp. While struggling to fit in at school, she is befriended by Fumi, whose sister, Sumiko, has been earning money by dancing in bars with American soldiers.

Two other important characters include Japanese-Americans Matt and Nancy, who work as translators for the American government. For the most part, the Japanese people welcomed the American occupiers, and many wrote letters to General Douglas MacArthur, who was the leader of the occupying forces to bring democracy to Japan. These letters needed to be translated into English, and this is where the title of the book comes from.

The characters’ longings and desires are clearly drawn, and I was engaged by their intersecting stories. Fumi wants to send a letter to General MacArthur asking him to find her sister, and she enlists Aya’s help. They end up giving the letter to Matt who, along with Nancy, tries to find Sumiko among the myriad bars in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Sumiko develops a problem of her own and flees to a hidden location.

Lynne Kutsukake’s writing style is clean and straightforward. She weaves in relevant details about life in Japan to help the reader imagine what it would have been like to live there at that time both as an American (who had access to more wealth and food), and as a Japanese person (many of whom struggled to make ends meet). Here is the beginning of chapter 1, just before Fumi meets Aya:

Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and although she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was a delicious oily meat called Spam. Occasionally it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor—somehow sweet and salty at the same time—was surprisingly addictive.

The characters in this novel are gentle and appealing. I was surprised at the lack of anger and resentment on the part of the Japanese, but perhaps this was true to life.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—the woman who was the first wife of Edward Rochester, Jane’s lover. According to Jane Eyre, this madwoman was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, born and raised in Jamaica. She inherited the madness that ran in her family. Rochester claims that he was not told of this inherited insanity before his marriage. Later in the book, we learn that she sets fire to the house and burns it to the ground.

Jean Rhys was the pen name of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, born on the West Indies island of Dominica in 1890. Her father was Welsh and her mother was a white Creole (born and raised in the West Indies). She moved to England at the age of 17. Her life story sounds fascinating, and is the subject of a biography, The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini.

Rhys takes the sketch of Bertha Antoinetta Mason given in Jane Eyre and constructs a fully realized character, starting with her childhood in Jamaica, where she lives on Coulibri, a crumbling estate, with her mother and ill brother in the mid-1800s. The family has fallen on hard times: her father is dead, most of their slaves have fled, and the other white people in Jamaica shun them because they are Creoles. The young Antoinette’s best friend is her nanny, a black woman who has knowledge of obeah (folk magic).

The novel is told in an imagistic style, and readers must piece together events and relationships from sometimes disconnected scenes. The writing style is lush and descriptive. Here is a passage towards the beginning, as the child Antoinette, shunned, lonely and almost abandoned by her restless mother, struggles to find a way to spend her time:

I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think “It’s better than people.” Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin—once I saw a snake. All better than people (p. 28).

Antoinette’s mother soon marries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette takes his last name. (It is this man’s son—Antoinette’s step-brother—who, in Jane Eyre, travels to England to stop the marriage between Jane and Rochester). Antoinette’s mother goes mad from grief due to tragic events. This first section of the novel is told from Antoinette’s point of view.

The second section, which starts after Antoinette is persuaded to marry Edward Rochester, visiting from England, is told from Rochester’s point of view. It is not entirely clear why they get married. Is Rochester only interested in her wealth, to be inherited from Mr. Mason? Does she really love him? He insists on calling her “Bertha” because he likes the name, even though that is not her name, and even though she asks him not to. This section takes place during their honeymoon on a small island in the West Indies. Rochester hears rumors about his wife and her companions, and is not sure who or what to believe. His mental confusion is mirrored by his confusion at the unfamiliar landscape in which he finds himself.

The third section, again told through the eyes of Antoinette, who is now insane, takes place in England during the time she is imprisoned in the attic of Rochester’s mansion. Readers familiar with Jane Eyre will notice events and incidents that are mentioned in that novel, but now re-told through the eyes of the insane Antoinette.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a short, intense book, as colorful as the tropical West Indies home of Antoinette.