The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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Echoes From the Dead by Johan Theorin

11479981Echoes From the Dead by Johan Theorin is such a marvellous, evocative and yet also oppressive book to read. Set on the Swedish Island of Oland, it tells the story of Julia Davidsson whose six-year-old son, Jens, went missing on the fog-bound alvar (marshes/fields) of the island over twenty years earlier. When her mostly estranged elderly father, who has abandoned his home on the isle and thus independence for the comfort of a nursing home, is sent her son’s sandal in the post, it not only reopens wounds Julia has never allowed to heal, but sends her back to the island she left all those years ago and the memories it holds in order to discover the truth of her son’s disappearance.

Tied in with Julia, Jens and Julia’s father’s story is that of the island’s resident sociopath, Nils Kant. Believed dead and buried long ago, stories about Nils as a violent boy and later, as an aggressive and exiled man, continue to swirl, his ghost haunting not just the remaining residents, but managing to inculcate its way into Jens’ possible fate as well.

When friends of Julia’s father and others who believe Nil Kants still lives and will do anything to prevent his whereabouts from being discovered die or are silenced, Julia and her father risk their lives to discover exactly what the island of Oland is hiding.

Ostensibly a story about loss and grief, and the impact this has on an individual and families, it’s also about the way people deal with trauma and the resultant victim status that can follow. Segueing between past and present, the war and changing socio-economic circumstances of the country, island and industries, the novel cleverly situates, but never reduces, personal tragedy within a wider cultural and social picture. While the landscape and weather of Oland is stunningly created, the cold, the wind and rain and the frigid waters that lap the sands, as well as the thick fog that can descend and obscure, it’s the internal landscapes of the characters, particularly Julia’s, that are the most suffocating and, like the fog, almost impossible to escape from. Her grim reality and the demons that haunt her and heart-breaking and so very real and poignant.

Interior lives and histories are masterfully rendered and though the book is slow-moving, it is never, ever dull. On the contrary, I couldn’t put it down and despite reading closely (wrapped in a blanket with one eye over my shoulder), I never saw the tragic twist in the finale coming.

As soon as I finished, I immediately downloaded Theorin’s next novel, also set in Oland. Before I commence, I want to raise my head, absorb some light and warmth and then plunge back into what I’ve no doubt will be another delightfully gloomy prospect.

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Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason

8171219Normally I try and avoid reading series, especially crime series, out of order. However, with Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason, which I is number four in the Inspector Erlendur series, it doesn’t seem to matter. Such is the pace and quality of the writing that you’re immediately flung into the world of the dour, melancholic Inspector with the fractured family and the cold-case murder he investigates.

When a skeleton is found beneath a construction site, the apparent murder also becomes an archaeological dig that forces the inspector and his team to look to the past for both questions and answers.

The book segues between events during WWII in Iceland when British and American forces held bases in parts of the country and the present, as the reader meets a brutalised young mother and her oppressed family between episodes of the inspector dealing with his own dysfunctional one.

Bleak, dark, and bitter like the weather that defines this part of the world, and yet with characters that enter your heart and won’t leave, this is a gripping book that I found impossible to tear myself away from. Events unfold slowly, languidly even, contradicting the terror some of the scenes evoke and the feelings of impotence and silent rage that too often accompany them.

Not a light read by anyone’s stretch of the imagination, but a fulfilling one it was. Looking forward to reading more by Indridason and learning about the brooding Inspector who can solve everyone else’s problems but his own.

 

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This book was given a huge recommendation by a friend who shares similar reading tastes but not even her high praise prepared me for the story that unfolded when I began reading The Nightingale.

24447955Set on the eve of Word War Two in rural France, Paris and other locales, this is fundamentally a tale about two sisters: the gentle, loving and loyal Vianne, who simply wants to get on with the business of living and loving her husband and daughter, and her rebellious, impulsive sister, Isabelle. Fundamentally abandoned – if not rejected – by their father after their mother died and while still young, the two sisters found different ways to ope with their grief and loss. Sadly, they’re unable to find solace in each other; Vianne is frustrated by her sister’s perceived lack of responsibility and selfishness, Isabelle by Vianne’s lack of interest in and feelings for her – it’s as if she’s been rejected by her sister as well.

But it’s also a story about war and what it does to those who are drawn into its tragedy; how it strips some of their humanity, while for others it reminds them of what’s important and why no risk is ever too great to sustain this.

When the rumours of Nazis invading become a reality and the sisters’ very different lives are overturned, Vianne is forced to billet a Nazi officer. Terrified for her daughter, wondering about her husband who has been conscripted to the front, as her beloved village is transformed almost overnight (including some of the villagers) Vianne faces terrible deprivations and loss of heart and soul as she is forced into a series of difficult and dangerous choices simply to survive.

In the meantime, a chance encounter with an earnest young man sees Isabelle risking her life in order to stand up to the Nazi injustices and the destruction these monsters leave in their wake.

What neither Vianne or Isabelle can predict, however, is just how many sacrifices they’ll be asked to make, how many losses they’ll have to endure and how much faith and courage they’ll have to find – not only in each other, but within themselves.

Moving from the late 1980s and the reminiscing of a dying old woman and back to the young woman and the war tearing the world apart, this heart-wrenching, beautiful and brave story of women and men who resist the lure of evil, who stand up for what is right is remarkable. Taking its time, the novel draws you into the lives of the sisters, their family and neighbours. With gorgeous prose, meaningful reflections and such truth in the complex familial relationships portrayed, even when what’s being revealed is painful or unflattering, you come to understand the characters and their motives. Because the novel is set against a backdrop we know so well, the reader is privy to what the characters don’t know – the heartless onslaught of Hitler, the Gestapo and Nazis, the horror of the Concentration camps, and the chaos and utter heartache that await them all. How hope is so hard to cling to, but cling they must. This knowledge creates a particular frisson as you read, making the narrative even more powerful than it already is.

Hauntingly tragic yet also so very beautiful, this is a story that lingered in my heart and mind for days afterwards. A simply wonderful book that I cannot recommend highly enough whether you’re a lover of history, fine fiction, a tremendous tale or whether you long to hear the voices of those so often rendered silent.

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The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

I finished The Beast’s Garden, the latest novel by one of my all-time favourite authors, Australian writer, Kate Forsyth, a while ago and found myself so deeply affected and moved by the story that I bided my time before reviewing it. I had extreme visceral responses to what’s ostensibly a love story set against the horrendous backdrop of Nazi Germany.

23702432The Beast’s Garden explores the lead up to World War Two: the targeting of the Jews, the pogroms, the “Final Solution”, as well as the resistance movement and the general attitudes and experiences of everyday Germans to the injustice, horror and fear as their leaders declared war against the world. Set between the years 1938-1943 and beyond, the book is very much located in Berlin, the epi-centre of the Nazi regime and tells of the young and beautiful Ava, a woman with the voice of an angel, and how she attracts the attention of a handsome and very Aryan Nazi officer, Leo.

As the book opens, the persecution of the Jews is on the rise, and Ava’s close friends, the Fiedlers, especially their children, homosexual Rupert and his sister, Jutta – are subjected to incredible hardship, particularly Rupert, through whom we experience the utter desolation and cruelty of Buchenwald. Concomitant with this is the ascent of the Nazi party and the officers whose names were to become part of global history and stark reminders of humans’ capacity for cruelty – Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, etc. As the Fiedlers descend into poverty and become increasingly marginalised and disempowered, Ava’s star, as a singer of talent, is on the rise and yet, she resists what is being offered to her, aware of the injustices being meted out around her and feeling powerless to make a difference… that is, until she meets a group of courageous people.

What makes this book so unique in terms of story, apart from setting a passionate love story against such a dire and harrowing backdrop (which made it richer and deeper – out of great ugliness, beauty and love still rise and shine), is the fact it focuses on both ordinary everyday German people and the hardship they also experienced, their revulsion towards what was happening to the Jews and their efforts (often at the risk of their own lives and that of their families) to extend help and alleviate suffering and a specific wing of the German military – the intelligence services and the officers serving within it. While there were those who revelled in the downfall of a people they came to blame for all their social ills, there were so many other brave souls – outside and within the machinery of war – many of whom died for their selfless efforts. Forsyth is at pains to acknowledge these people, her exhaustive research paying homage to the risks they took and their humanity in the face of such danger and suffering.

Peppered with real figures and events (some of which are obscure in terms of familiar history, but oh so powerful), it’s a huge credit to Forsyth that the book is never didactic. It’s also testimony to Forsyth’s beautiful prose, the way her sentences flow and gather momentum, ironically building a crumbling world as she describes the beauty of a snow-covered Strasse, the brutality of the commandant’s wife at Buchenwald, and Rupert’s attempts to inscribe meaning upon his bleak existence. Her words grab you by the throat and heart and don’t let you go.

The overall narrative is loosely based on the old Grimm tale of the “Singing Springing Lark” which has been retold in various renditions as “Beauty and the Beast”. This poignant, traumatic and yet soul-stirring book is far more than a retelling of a famous fairy-tale. It’s a record of a time we should never forget – of our ability to transcend evil, through love, kindness, and connection but also of the darkness that lurks inside some people and how sometimes, we allow that to blot out the light and in doing so, we all suffer.

In the spirit of never forgetting, I feel I should also contextualise the reason for my intense response to this book. Of German-Jewish descent, I lost almost all my family to the Holocaust – Mendelssohn was our family name and, yes, we’re related to the composer, Felix (whose music Hitler banned). My great-grandfather (who was interred in Buchenwald and later died, alongside his wife, my great-grandmother, Ilse, in Tereisenstadt), also being a Felix. It was always driven home to me, by my grandmother, who escaped to Israel in her late teens/early twenties before coming to Australia, that her parents and family were first and foremost German. They were not even practising Jews and so were shocked and in total disbelief at what happened to them, their neighbours and extended family – how their birthright as Jews was turned against them in such profound and evil ways – their shared German history and undeniable loyalty to their country counting for nothing.

With every page, I felt I wasn’t just stepping into a version of history, but into personal history. It was a hard but worthwhile journey in so many ways. I thank Kate for that.

This is a wonderful addition to Forsyth’s growing body of work – from her simply addictive and clever fantasy books to her extraordinary works of historical fiction – all of which rate among my much-loved books.

Though I found myself alternately reeling, crying, sighing, having to put the book down and walk away; though memories of my own family and the stories I’d been told resurfaced and bubbled like a cauldron, I cannot recommend this book highly enough for lovers of history, great writing, and tightly plotted and executed stories that remain with you days and weeks afterwards. Simply superb.

 

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