IYCRMM: Romancing the novel

Romance doesn’t always have to be a couple in love. It can be about grand gestures, affinity to an era, and making things count in a larger than life manner. These novels “bleed” romance—and in good ways. 

'The Bleeding' by Johana Gustawsson; 'Or What You Will' by Jo Walton; 'The Whalebone Theatre' by Joanna Quinn; 'The Romantic' by William Boyd; and 'Dr. No' by Percival Everett

'The Whalebone Theatre' by Joanna Quinn

Starting from 1920, then moving back and forth in time, all the way to 1945, this novel chronicles the aristocratic Seagrave family and their Dorset estate. Central to the enterprise is Christabel Seagrave, her half-sister Flossie, and Digby who is her “brother” and heir to the Seagrave name who isn’t really related to her. How that happens, the complexities of the relationships that swirl within the family, their adolescence and family contacts, and the secret involvement that both Christabel and Digby undertake during World War II, are the bare bones of the narrative. But that description doesn’t hint at the texture, the beauty of language, and the fervid imagination put in the service of bringing this family saga to us readers. 

Christabel is the obvious luminary in the exposition, a tomboyish young girl whose mother died in childbirth, with a father who basically has no idea on what to do with a daughter. He remarries in the hope of producing an heir, but a stupid accident leads to his younger brother marrying said widow, and that union results in Digby. The title refers to a beached whale that Christabel claims as her discovery and property, and when the bleached bones of the whale are eventually stuck into the ground as crossbones, a theater chamber is created, and that’s where Christabel directs her plays for the local community. With Quinn, it’s a rich tapestry with people we care about that makes reading this novel such a rewarding experience. 

'The Romantic' by William Boyd

A longtime favorite author that stretches to over four decades starting with Stars and Bars in 1984, this is the latest from Boyd. And it’s a sumptuous feast of a book. Born in 1799, Cashel Greville Ross serves as the prism through which Boyd makes his observations and commentary about the 19th century. Set across countries and continents, and reflecting times of War and of peace, the novel ultimately reflects on what's in a life. Looking at what we leave behind, and how to make sense of a life that ultimately won’t be remembered—the fate that is waiting for the vast majority of us who inhabit this planet. And let’s face it, this is a truth that’s sometimes hard to admit—like who remembers the details of the life led by their great or great-great grandfather? 

Born in Ireland and led to believe he’s an orphan, Cashel finds out early on the bitter truth about his provenance, and how innocent children can be such victims of circumstance. In the life that is then chronicled, Cashel becomes a soldier, a farmer, a felon, a writer, and a grand lover. From Cork County in Ireland, we’re whisked to Waterloo, to India, and the Madras Regiment. And then to Pisa where Cashel hobnobs with Lord Byron and the Shelleys, finding his true love in Raphaella who’s married to an Italian count.  Next as the USA and farming in Banbury, and returning to England to lead an expedition to find the source of the Nile in Zanzibar, Africa, and even becoming the British Consul for Nicaragua in Trieste. Rather than just be a witness to history, Boyd has Cashel participating and affecting outcomes in a myriad of ways. 

'The Bleeding' by Johana Gustawsson

Gustawsson has been referred to as the queen of French noir, and it’s easy to discern why based on this novel which is my first exposure to her works. It’s ambitious, it’s gothic, and it takes no prisoner in creating a heady atmosphere of foreboding and dangerous implication. Set across three distinct time periods—Quebec in 2003, 1949 post-war Quebec, and Paris 1899, we’re introduced to a revolving cast of characters and are immediately intrigued by how the linkages between the troika of time narratives will come about. And to her credit, Gustawsson wastes no time in providing us with strong protagonists for each of the eras. Protagonists who quickly resonate, and we anticipate their next appearance.

In 2003 Quebec, there’s detective Maxine who’s just given birth to her second daughter and is caught up in a fresh case involving her former teacher Pauline Caron who just murdered her husband in a bloody and ritualistic manner. In 1949, that same Pauline is a young, impressionable Lina, and her mother works at the local asylum. It’s there that she befriends an old woman, Lucienne, and is indoctrinated into the dark arts. Lucienne, in Paris 1899, is a young wife who’s recently transplanted from Quebec. This was when she “loses” her two daughters in a house fire—disturbing facts about the deaths of the two young girls slowly emerged. Witch, mystic, purveyor of things occult and sinister, criminal? We’re caught up in the lives and roles of these three women.

'Dr. No' by Percival Everett

Everett released The Trees early last year and it was long listed for the Booker 2022. It was one of my favorite novels of the year. Using the real life lynching of Emmett Till as the spark, Everett produced a fantastical narrative that saw the “ghost” of Till exacting revenge on the descendants of those that had caused his death. It was Southern magical realism with a dash of loopy humor. Not one to repeat himself, this new novel can be described as an existential mystery thriller that puts a Mathematics professor, the self-styled Wala Kitu, and his one legged dog, Trigo, at the center of the fiendish plot of a billionaire megalomaniac who’s out to use James Bond villains, especially Dr. No, as his role models.

In typical Everett humor, as a professor of “Nothing,” Kitu explains that “wala” means nothing in Tagalog, and the same can be said for “kitu” in Swahili. He jokes that the two negatives make him a natural positive. Eigen Vector is the fellow math professor and love interest, while the billionaire Mr. Sill ostensibly hires the two to help him with his plot to turn a Massachusetts town into nothing, and ransack Fort Knox. While the narrative is fun and breezy, there are probing questions raised about identity, villainy, and the hypocrisy of Government and the powers that be. This novel doesn’t scale the heights that The Trees managed to aspire for and reach, but it does showcase the inquisitive energy of Everett, and entertains. 

'Or What You Will' by Jo Walton

Iconic characters created by renowned authors are often spoken about figuratively as outliving the ones who created them in the first place. If you don’t agree with me, just think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and how Sherlock Holmes is very much in the public radar to this day. Jo Walton is one of true luminaries when it comes to works of fantasy. In this new novel, she goes “meta” in her own unique manner. Sylvia Harrison is 73 years old, and has written some 30 well received Fantasy novels over a 40 year writing career. Among her most loved creations are the books set in the imaginary city of Thalia, and how it’s inspired by Florence but filled with magic, and characters inspired by Shakespeare and Roman mythology. 

The narrator of this novel is Sylvia’s muse or alter ego and has been a character in one form or another in several of her works. Aware that Sylvia is getting on in age and is beset by some terminal illness, our narrator would seem to have plans of his own to ensure his “life” and how to immortalize Sylvia. Chapters alternate between our narrator musing on his predicament and internal conversations with Sylvia, and that of her new Thalia saga and how our narrator insinuates himself into the narrative. At one level a fantasy story of its own, the novel also operates as a commentary on where stories come from, and the journey they take us on. And while Sylvia’s peg is obviously Jo Walton herself, you’ll appreciate the delicate balance between the fictitious world of Sylvia, and the fiction she creates as a novelist, meshing in this work.