Posted in Book Reviews

Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin – Herald Review

Solovyov and Larionov

Solovyov and Larionov

Solovyov and Larionov

Eugene Vodolazkin

Translated by Lisa Hayden

Oneworld, £14.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Eugene Vodolazkin, an award-winning author, was born in Kiev and now lives in St Petersburg, Russia. Solovyov and Larionov is his debut novel, although it is the third to be translated from Russian to English. It tells the story of Solovyov, a young history student at the tail end of the 20th Century, who is given an unusual topic for his thesis; the life of the Imperial General Larionov.

Solovyov has been living and studying in St Petersburg for some years, keen to leave his impoverished childhood behind and forge a new life for himself. He tends to be an observer of events, watching other people and analysing their actions and motives. He applies the same level of analysis to his studies and throws himself into the study of General Larionov. Solovyov’s need to carefully consider all the angles of a person or situation means that the novel progresses at a stately pace. At times this is a little frustrating but the expressive language that Vodolazkin employs, and the amusing asides, makes up for the lack of momentum. ‘In the eyes of the young Larionov, every movement his great-grandfather made, even the very knock of his peg leg on the parquet floor, was filled with a special dignity.’ The narrative voice is strong and imposing, demonstrating a confidence not often seen in debut novels. ‘What, one might ask, unites two such dissimilar individuals as the historian Solovyov and the General Larionov, if of course it is permissible to speak of uniting a budding young researcher and a battle-weary commander who, furthermore, is no longer on this earth?’

Solovyov learns that General Larionov was a distinguished, and notoriously bloody, commander in the White Russian army during the Russian Civil War. He became a heroic figure for the Imperialists but intriguingly was allowed to live out his life in the new Soviet Union without his past Tsarist loyalties being used against him. Instead, to Solovyov’s amazement, he appears to have been left alone and even given a pension by the Soviets. The General settles in the Crimean resort of Yalta, spending his days on the beach looking out to the Black Sea. When he dies, he leaves behind a memoir, but it is incomplete. Solovyov travels to Yalta to try and track down pages rumoured to have been lost.

No doubt, a more intimate knowledge of Russian tertiary education and research communities would reveal many more insider jokes, but Lisa Hayden’s translation is full of Vodolazkin’s wry humour. ‘In her case, this was not a matter of the historian’s external features, something the scholarly community permits itself to mock, due to her height (187 centimeters) and the emergence of a mustache after the age of forty.’ Solovyov does not escape his dry wit either. On a visit to the beach at Yalta, a novelty for Solovyov who grew up in the interior of Russia, a place known only by the train station name, Kilometer 715, provides Vodolazkin with an opportunity to gently poke fun at the young man’s naivety on forgetting to bring fresh underpants with him. ‘After Solovyov sat down to buckle his sandals, the contour of his swimsuit developed on the back of his shorts, as if on wrinkled photographic paper.’

While in Yalta, Solovyov meets Zoya, whose mother was an assistant to the General in his later years, providing a living link to the General. She reminds Solovyov of his first sexual experiences back in Kilometer 715, timed to coincide with a train passing so that his grandmother wouldn’t hear what he was up to with a local girl. The self-possessed Zoya, who works at the Chekhov Museum, is just one of many surprises that await Solovyov in Yalta.

With its humour and philosophical reflections – do we ever learn from our past mistakes, as humans and as nations? – this is an ambitious undertaking for a first novel. It is to Vodolazkin’s credit that he pulls it off, creating a substantial, beguiling work that engages the reader on several levels. It encompasses a detective story, historical events, and even a little romance.

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Posted in Book Reviews

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – Herald Review

The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh

Ambrose Parry

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

The name Ambrose Parry may sound like that of an obscure Victorian novelist; a contemporary of Charles Dickens, perhaps. It is in fact the pen name of best-selling crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his anaesthetist wife, Marisa Haetzman, writing their first novel together. The idea grew from Haetzman’s research for a Master’s Degree in the History of Medicine, and her dissertation on the use of anaesthesia in Edinburgh Royal Maternity hospital in the 1840s. This is the first in a proposed series of novels set in Victorian Edinburgh.

It is 1847, and Will Raven is studying medicine in Edinburgh, a renowned centre of medical innovation. Financially, he struggles but things improve when he is taken on as an apprentice to Dr James Simpson, a famously brilliant obstetrician, who is searching for a more reliable and effective form of anaesthesia than ether. Raven moves into Simpson’s New Town residence and accompanies the doctor on his house calls at all hours of the night and day. Simpson treats anyone who needs his services, whether rich or poor, and runs clinics from his impressive home. Whilst the rich are conveyed upstairs, Raven sees the poor at the downstairs clinic which is organised by Sarah, the housemaid. From their first meeting, Sarah takes a dislike to Raven, not least because he is benefitting from the kind of education she longs for. She also reckons that for all his pretences, Raven isn’t on the same social level as Dr Simpson, his thin and mended clothes indicating a man of very modest means. He also has ‘a glimmer of the dark,’ which disturbs Raven as much as it does Sarah. When a number of young women are found dead around the city, their bodies agonisingly twisted, Sarah and Raven put aside their differences and set out to discover how and why these women have died.

Victorian Edinburgh is vividly depicted, from the dark, dank slums of the Old Town, to the rarefied air and elegance of the New Town. The dual nature of the city is subtly shown, Edinburgh being a great seat of learning and culture, while also being riddled with crime, hunger, and disease. There is a definite change in the city’s atmosphere when day turns to night, with danger lurking around every murky corner. The introduction of real life figures such as Dr Simpson, the legendary Edinburgh detective McLevy, and the photographic pioneers Hill and Adamson, lends the story an air of authenticity and the authors seamlessly stitch the fictional characters into this narrative frame. Duality is also present in the lives of Sarah and Mina, Dr Simpson’s unmarried sister-in-law. As an orphan from the lower classes, Sarah’s options are limited to finding a respectable job or resorting to prostitution. She has a bright, enquiring mind. When she suggests that she might become an assistant at the local pharmacy, she is told, ‘our assistants must inspire confidence in our customers. For that, only a man will do.’ Mina, meanwhile, longs for marriage and children which will give her a recognised position in society and control over her own home. As the years pass, Mina becomes increasingly despondent and wonders if her fate is to become a spinster aunt, relying on her sister and brother-in-law for everything. Both women struggle against the different limitations that society places on them.

Brookmyre’s influence can be detected in the pacing and effective characterisation, while Haetzman’s can be found in the ghastly medical scenes, from difficult, bloody births to the gory removal of a man’s putrefied arm without anaesthetic. These scenes, rooted in grim reality, illustrate why the quest to find a safe anaesthetic was so pressing. The power of the medical establishment is amply demonstrated by the unquestioning awe they inspire in their patients, even as they suffer.

This is a hefty tome of some four hundred pages but the authors sustain interest on every page and tension in every chapter. Raven and Sarah are intriguing characters. They are very different personalities but together they make a formidable team, much like the authors Brookmyre and Haetzman whose first collaboration in fiction is a resounding success.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter – Herald Review

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter
John Pipkin
Bloomsbury, £18.99

AMERICAN author John Pipkin’s second novel is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chiefly concerns the fate of two women called Caroline. Caroline Herschel is based on a real person, while Caroline Ainsworth is Pipkin’s invention. Their stories are set in a time when exploration of the sciences flourished, especially the study of the night skies, provoked by The Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744. Visible in London for weeks, it scared some into believing, “that there is a hole in the sky’s vault leaking the bright essence of heaven itself.” It was also a time of revolution. The recent French Revolution was descending into a blood bath while discontent in Ireland grew.

Caroline Ainsworth has grown up in the comfort of a grand house in rural Ireland with her widowed father, Arthur. He has become obsessed with astronomy and Caroline, considered unmarriageable because she has a withered arm, becomes his willing helper. She is faster than her father when it comes to the complex mathematics involved in plotting and predicting where the planets should be. Together they dedicate their lives to probing the night skies and recording their observations. Arthur is convinced that a new planet is waiting to be found, one he calls Theodosium, after his late wife, Theodosia. When musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel declares that he has found it, Arthur loses all reason. He looks at the sun through his telescope in a vain attempt to prove Herschel wrong and before long is blind. When Arthur sickens and dies, Caroline finds out the truth of her origins. Left penniless and feeling betrayed by Arthur, she leaves for London and a new life.

For anyone not familiar with astronomy, but also for those who are, Pipkin’s detailed explanations of how Arthur and Caroline study the night skies will prove fascinating. Their instruments are basic and their telescopes are crudely made by local tradesmen. The long, slow process of casting and polishing the special mirrors used in telescopes reflects the the long, slow process of mapping the planets and stars.

Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel who became Astronomer Royal to the court of George III. Initially, William came to Bath to pursue a career in music but soon his hobby became all-consuming after he discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline’s growth had been stunted by contracting typhus and she had the tell-tale scars of smallpox on her face. Like the other Caroline, she was judged unsuitable for marriage and became a drudge in her mother’s house. William brought her to England and she became his housekeeper and soon his assistant as they investigated the skies. Caroline meticulously noted down William’s observations, what she called, “minding the heavens”. Although overshadowed by her brother, Caroline would go on to discover eight comets and received a small stipend for her work from the king. She was the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.

Arthur Ainsworth was obsessed with discovering binary stars, pairs of stars that help astronomers map the heavens. Pipkin weaves this theme of couples into the novel. Caroline and Arthur Ainsworth, Caroline and William Herschel, Arthur and William, and most prominently, Caroline and Caroline, whose lives closely mirror each other. Then there is Caroline Ainsworth and Finn, the blacksmith’s nephew with whom she falls in love and who brings her back to Ireland as rebellion breaks out.

The 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, inspired by the French and American revolutions, was a bloody and brutal affair that lasted four months. Pipkin does not shy away from describing the cruelty and horrors committed on both sides. As Finn is forced to join the rebels, Caroline Ainsworth patiently waits for his return.

Until the latter stages of the novel, it feels as if one strand of the story isn’t relevant and the effect is a little disjointed even when it is resolved. The tale is told in the third person, focalising on each of the main characters in turn. However, the authorial voice is strong which means that the characters sometimes feel as distant as the stars they observe.
Pipkin’s novel is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The vastness of the heavens is matched by the passions of the men and women who explore it. Beautifully written with layers touching on science, politics and social change, it is a novel to be savoured and not rushed.

Posted in Book Reviews

1588: A Calendar of Crime Review

SHIRLEY McKay has written five novels in the popular Hew Cullan series, each set against the backdrop of a major political event. Cullan’s latest adventures are set in the year the Spanish Armada tried to invade England and depose Elizabeth I. There are five tales marking key points in the calendar – Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, Martinmas, and Yule – tracing a year in the life of the young scholar, lawyer and sleuth in his St Andrews home.

Candlemas, featuring the suspicious death of Blair the candlemaker in his crackling house, introduces some of the less pleasant aspects of 16th-century life. The process by which tallow candles were made is explained, from the flesher cutting the fat off farm animals to the candle maker preparing it for his candles. Thanks to McKay’s vivid writing the foul smells of boiling animal fat and burning tallow seem to rise up from the page. Cullan’s sure and steady investigative technique discovers the truth, but it is not as black-and-white as he and his friend Dr Giles Locke might wish.

Whitsunday sees local dignitary Lord Justice Semphill dance naked during the night before transforming into a rook. As Cullen investigates, McKay weaves in the fear of witchcraft and various superstitions of the time. It is well done; understated but informative. Meg, Cullen’s sister and an expert in using herbs, helps him to unravel the mystery which includes “an ointment prescribed for griefs of the fundament”. It is an amusing story with the dark subtext of witchcraft lending it added complexity.

McKay has a splendid knowledge of the Scots tongue that comes to the fore in Lammas, with the exchanges between Elspet, in service in the harbour inn, and Walter Bone, her boss. She calls him “Sliddershanks” on account of his crippled legs, while he calls her “Mimmerkin” because of her small and slight stature. He tells her she is not the kind of woman to serve the customers in the bar, being a “pin-hippit runt”, so she works mainly in the kitchen. The Lammas Fair brings excitement and the chance of romance to St Andrews, although for some it has lost its charms. “Fairs are for lovers and bairns, and I am fair trauchled wi both,” says Canny Bett to Cullan. The fear of a Spanish invasion looms large, and as Martinmas comes around so too does Halloween. The veil between the living and dead worlds grows thinner and strange things happen in St Andrews. Cullan and his friends must discover what’s afoot. Are those ghostly figures really the beginning of a Spanish invasion?

Yule again shows McKay’s excellent grasp of the everyday lives of 16th-century Scots. Children learn songs to sing at the nativity and all through the houses the best food and drink that could be afforded is made ready. Treats like minchit pies – filled with fruits, spice and strips of flesh – coloured tarts, marchpanes and gingerbread are made, a surfeit of which causes a “belly-thraw”. However, the festive season doesn’t mean that Cullan’s skills are any less in demand.

McKay makes it easy to slip into 16th-century St Andrews, the sense of place and time is so strong. Mary, Queen of Scots, has been beheaded just the year before and her son, James VI, is King of Scots. Elizabeth Tudor is trying to avoid outright war with the Spanish by using her wits and the information her legion of spies bring her. Cullan, an honest if sometimes staid hero, stands between the old ways, full of superstitions and folklore, and the progressive ideas his education has taught him. McKay is developing Cullan’s private life with his wife, Frances, but for much of the time he is the vehicle through which the reader observes the solution to the mysteries. This means that the other characters are more active and rounded but Cullan is a likeable and reliable guide to the goings-on in Fife’s cathedral town. McKay’s novel in five books is a fascinating evocation of the everyday life of ordinary Scots in the 1500s as well as being a series of first-rate stories. Her use of language is a delight, the sinewy and expressive Scots words aiding the creation of Cullen’s very realistic world. For anyone struggling with the lesser-known words – bumbaise, caquetoire, limmar, pilliewinks – the volume includes a helpful glossary. This is an impressive addition to the Hew Cullan series, and McKay is to be congratulated for the continued quality and inventiveness of her tales.

1588: A Calendar of Crime: A Novel in Five Books by Shirley McKay is published by Polygon, priced £14.99

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